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Western students lobby for student support, voter access at the capitol

Student lobbyists from Western stand on the state capitol's steps on Jan. 18. // Photo by Robert Johnson
Student lobbyists from Western stand on the state capitol’s steps on Jan. 18. // Photo by Robert Johnson

Facilitating voter access and funding for student support were among the topics of discussion during Viking Lobby Day.

The annual event organized by the Associated Students took place Jan. 17 and 18. More than 100 students met with state representatives, senators and Gov. Jay Inslee in Olympia to lobby for change this congressional session.

Lobbying is the process of discussing your position on an issue with state representatives with the intent of influencing their decisions made in government.

The reason they were there lobbying was that the legislature wouldn’t hear them otherwise, said Patrick Eckroth, AS vice-president for governmental affairs.

Funding for student support

Some students sat down with Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss the addition of $2.4 million in the supplementary budget to fund student support systems at Western, including the counseling center, the tutoring center and academic advising. Western’s 2016-2017 budget allocates more than $1.3 million in state funding to Academic and Career Development Services.

Students testified about their inability to efficiently use these services due to the small amount of staff employed to serve Western and sheer amount of students attempting to use the same services.

Student demand for services at the Western’s counseling center has doubled over the past five years, according to the AS Legislative Agenda.

“I would love to help on this,” the governor told students regarding their demand for supplemental funding. Inslee praised Western lobbyists on their preparedness for their meeting and their ability to create funding plans for each issue they were lobbying. Those funding plans are centered around a proposed tax on capital gains of over $25,000 a year, which could potentially raise up to $1.6 billion. Capital gains is the amount of money obtained by selling bonds, stocks and real estate.

However, when students spoke to Rep. Dan Kristiansen, he told them to focus their efforts on speaking with Western’s Board of Trustees to prioritizes existing funds to student support resources rather than lobbying legislators.

Voter access

Western students advocated for facilitating voter access to make the process more accessible for people of color and marginalized groups.

“Implementing the Washington Voting Rights Act would be critical for young voters and voters of marginalized identities.” AS VP for business and operation Hannah Brock told legislative staff.

The act would allow local governments to remedy the problem of minorities being excluded from elections, according to the WA Voting Rights Act website.

Students also lobbied their representatives for greater voter preregistration, supporting the implementation of a “motor voter” program, which would automatically pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote when they obtain their driver’s license.

This year, the Western Votes Program registered about 3,000 students to vote, more than any regional university in the state combined, Brock said.

Western Votes accomplished this feat in the 11 days from the start of the school year to the registration deadline. However, the AS recognizes an extended registration period would encourage more students to participate in local elections, Brock said.

A potential issue with implementing the motor voter program is non-citizens obtaining drivers licenses, Gov. Inslee said while speaking to student lobbyists. Washington is one of nine other states that issues driving permits to people without a Social Security number.

Ninety-nine percent of local elections use an “at large” voting system, which allows slim majorities to dominate on city and county councils and results in minority communities being under-represented, according to the Washington Voting Rights Act informational pamphlet. The WVRA would help local governments shift away from at large voting systems.

Black Lives Matter protest

During the students’ meetings with legislators, Olympia’s capitol building also hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. rally. About 200 people were crowded on the capitol’s rotunda, holding “black lives matter” banners and listening to speakers talk about the importance of King’s message and black youths’ access to education.

“Your access to education should be a matter of your zip code,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a speaker at the rally. “[King] had a dream not only for his children, but for my children and your children.”

Editors Note: This story has been updated to correct the following statements by AS VP for Business and Operations Hannah Brock: She said implementing the Washington Voting Rights Act would be critical for young voters and voters of marginalized identities, not only young voters. It was this year that the Western Votes program registered 3,000 voters, not last year. 

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