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Seattle ordinance would require landlords to give tenants voter registration information

City Councilor Kshama Sawant hopes to increase voter turnout

Voters turning in their ballots in 2009.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

There are a few things on every checklist when you move, like updating your internet or making sure utilities are in order. For the civically-minded, there’s a mandatory item on that list: Updating your voter registration.

Washington State is all vote-by-mail, so for someone without an updated voter registration, it severely complicates getting a ballot in the first place. That’s further complicated for people crossing state or county lines.

A new ordinance, proposed Monday by City Councilor Kshama Sawant, would streamline this into the moving process by requiring landlords to give new tenants voter registration information.

The idea is pretty simple. When renters move into a new place, landlords are already required to give them a stack of papers, prepared by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), that outlines their rights as tenants. The ordinance would just add the voting information to that pile.

According to a summary by City Council central staff, voter turnout is lower among people who have moved recently. They cite census data that says only 21 percent of those who have lived in their current residence for less than a year reported voting.

The goal with this new ordinance is to help pick up that slack.

Sawant’s office collaborated with several groups that engage renters, voters, and marginalized communities, including the Tenants’ Union, Capitol Hill Community Council, Be: Seattle, LGBTQ Allyship, and Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE) Votes.

“One of the biggest barriers to civic engagement that our community faces is the need for translated voter materials in limited-English-proficiency homes,” said APACE Votes’s Christina Reiko Shimizu in a statement. “This new rule would provide voter registration forms and information to all new tenants in the appropriate translated languages available.”

Despite the apparent simplicity, the ordinance is already getting pushback from landlord advocacy organization Rental Housing Association of Washington, weary at Seattle’s growing collection of landlord-tenant laws. (The group has two lawsuits pending over recent regulations: one over a cap in move-in fees, the other requiring landlords to accept the first qualified rental application submitted for a unit.)

“How many more pieces of paper will Seattle require landlords to give renters?” the organization sniped on Twitter. “Will notebooks be provided?”

The SDCI “Information for Tenants” document, an overview of landlords’ and tenants’ rights and responsibilities, is currently 15 pages long, or eight front and back. That doesn’t include other papers required by state building code, which depend on which building it is—but those are required by the state, not the city.

It’s too early to tell how long the new information would be, but the standard Washington State voter registration form, which includes information on how to register to vote and update voter registration, is two pages long—or just one page front and back.

This article has been updated since its original publication to include information on organizations that collaborated on the ordinance and to add a statement from APACE Votes.