Tacoma native and former U.S. Rep. Al Swift, who died April 20 at 82, was a national leader in expanding voter participation across the political spectrum.
The motor-voter bill President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993 was authored by Swift, as was the version that had been vetoed by President George Bush in 1992. In a career that also included the legislative victories of restored Amtrak service between Seattle and British Columbia and mandatory handicapped access to polling places, the creation of nationwide voter registration with drivers’-license issuance was perhaps Swift’s signature political achievement.
Here’s the story behind the story: Motor Voter became a national law — and a national movement — because Swift took inspiration one day in 1988 from Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro.
According to a Seattle Times story from 1993, Swift got the idea for national legislation when he chaired a committee hearing in which Munro held up his driver’s license and asked, “Why can’t this be my registration card?”
Before Swift could get Congress and a President to agree, the lawmakers in Olympia beat them to the punch. Washington state instituted motor-voter in time for the 1992 election cycle. In that fall’s election, about 61 percent of the state’s eligible adult population voted, which was the best turnout in a generation.
After the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 finally became law, Swift said: “I think it’s going to make it easier for every single American to be registered if they want to. Somewhere in all of the debate, that got lost.”
In a Facebook post, Sec. Munro recalled Swift as a good friend.
“Al was a fine guy,” Munro wrote, “and when he gave you his word you could take it to the bank.”