Seattle's Socialist city council member just came up with a way to get young and poor people to vote

Seattle's Socialist city council member just came up with a way to get young and poor people to vote
Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant JASON REDMOND/Getty Images
Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant JASON REDMOND/Getty Images

For years Democrats and progressives have struggled to get out the vote among its younger and lower-income populations. But now the lone socialist on the Seattle city council has found a way to make it happen — by making the property-owning class register their tenants to vote.

A new measure that just passed the Seattle City Council by a vote of 6-0 would require all landlords to provide new tenants with information on voting and a voter registration form. The bill was sponsored by Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant, who tweeted after the bill's passage that it would help toward ending voter disenfranchisement in Seattle.

Renters are more likely to be young, low-income and/or people of color, according to census data. And people who frequently change apartments because of rising prices and gentrification are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to voting.

According to an analysis of census data by Seattle Met magazine, only 21% of renters who live in their home for less than a year voted in 2014, compared to 41% of renters who lived in their home for more than five years.

The Seattle bill also gives renters who do not receive the voter information and registration from their landlords the option to terminate their rental agreements and recover up to $500. If it's determined that the landlord deliberately chose not to provide them the materials, the tenant can recover as much as $1,000.

Beyond just helping renters, increasing voter registration is a major goal for people who want to change the nature of the American electorate.

"If every registered millennial voted, their turnout rate would still be lower than those 65 or older," Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at the progressive think tank Demos who studies voting patterns and behaviors, said in an interview. "Registration barriers disproportionately affect youth, who are more mobile and more likely to be renters. The result is that policy doesn't reflect their preferences."

Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant addresses a news conference on a proposal to increase the minimum wage in the city in 2014. Elaine Thompson/AP

Turning out low-income, young and minority voters is a challenge that progressives have been struggling with for years. Youth turnout has proved an especially elusive goal with young people turning out in consistently lower rates than those of the general population.

But progressive hopes about youth voter turnout have been buoyed by the recent election in the U.K., where youth turnout was the highest it's been in 25 years and helped the Labour Party to make historic gains.

McElwee believes there are a number of similar polices legislators around the country could use to specifically increase young voter registration and boost turnout, thereby changing the American electorate.

"In 2014, only 17% of those 18 to 24 voted." McElwee said. "Policymakers should target registration to boost youth turnout. Young people should be pre-registered at the DMV when they obtain a license, which has been shown to increase turnout among young folks. In addition, automatic voter registration, which puts the burden of registration on the state rather than individuals, has been shown to increase youth turnout. Same-day registration, which eliminates the registration barrier, can also increase turnout."

The passage of the Seattle law shows that even in progressive cities like Seattle, there is a lot that can be done to increase voter registration among traditionally disenfranchised groups. The law will go into effect 30 days after it is signed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, just in time for the city's 2017 municipal elections.