To get young people to vote, let them pre-register at 16

Dismally low voter turnout among eligible citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 is a perpetual cause for despair. The numbers are particularly disturbing, say voting-rights organizations, “because people under 30 constitute the most progressive generation in memory. So, it stands to reason that encouraging younger voters to become politically active is a major part of advancing progressive reform.”

One solution is to engage youthful voters early,by giving them a path to voting and by eliminating obstacles–such as  citizen inertia–to registration. And by “early,” election-reform advocates mean 16.

FairVote, a non-profit that bills itself as “the center for voting and democracy,” proposes that:

states establish a uniform initial voter registration age of no older than 16. These advance-registered voters would be automatically added to the voting rolls when they reach voting age. Ideally, they would also be sent information about the mechanics of voting and the timing of the first election for which they are eligible. Evidence collected from different states suggests this change will usually have no fiscal impact.

Fair Vote’s website includes a fact sheet explaining the rationale for youth pre-registration:

  • A significant disparity exists between the percentage of young people registered to vote and the percentage of the general population.
    • 71% of eligible voters are registered; 59% of eligible voters age 18-24 are registered
  • A uniform voter registration age often does not exist.
    • In some states, all 17-year-olds and some 16-year-olds can register. In other states, some 17-year-olds and no 16-year-olds can register. In many states it changes year to year based on the date of the next election.
    • The lack of uniformity creates confusion and makes it harder to run effective voter registration and education programs in schools and at the Division of Motor Vehicles.
  • A uniform advance-registration age does not require a new registration database system.
    • In many states, advance-registered voters already are inputted into the voter registration database as “pending.” A State’s Board of Elections transfers “pending” voters to “active” status when they become eligible to vote.
  • Lowering the advance-registration age does NOT change the voting age.
    • The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets the voting age at 18-years-old.
    • Local and state jurisdictions can lower the voting age if they so choose, but it is a separate question from voter registration.
  • Why is 16-years-old a sensible age for advance-registration?
    • When applying for a driver’s license, a 16-year-old can register to vote at the DMV.
    • 16-years-old is the compulsory school attendance age in most states.
    • Many states already allow 16-year-olds to register during parts of the election cycle.
  • Why aren’t the current registration programs in high schools good enough?
    • Registration drives typically do not focus on anyone other than seniors.
    • Registration drives have much higher registration rates in presidential election years.
    • No statutory requirement for voter registration in schools exists.
    • A standardized voting curriculum would encourage students to learn about the mechanics of participation (i.e. requesting absentee ballots).
  • Does registering to vote at a younger age have long-term benefits?
    • Some states have already recognized the importance of early participation by allowing 17-year-olds to serve as full-time election judges.
    • Registration boosts turnout: in 2008, 83% of registered 18-24-year-olds voted.
    • Academic studies and electoral analyses show that voting behavior is habit-forming. If you vote, you will likely keep voting. If you don’t vote, you probably won’t start.

Another rationale for youth pre-registration comes from participation numbers for the 2008 presidential election. According to Progessive States Network:

After two presidential election cycles where we saw steady increases in youth voter participation, 2008 was the year that young voters really roared.  The primary season saw increases in youth voter participation outstrip the large increases in general participation with turnout tripling or even quadrupling among young people in some states. In the general election youth voted at a rate not seen since 1992 and have increased their turnout 11 points since 2000.

To date, five states have implemented a policy enabling pre-registration for voters under the age of 18. They are Maryland, North Carolina, Hawaii, Florida and Rhode Island.

A further step in modernizing the US electoral system would be to have universal voter registration, in which all citizens are automatically registered to vote. More on this idea in a future post…