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Get 'Em (Ready to Vote) While They're Young

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Youth Advance Voter Registration and Civic Engagement Initiatives Gain Steam in States
A FairVote Innovative Analysis by David Segal and Paul Fidalgo

Facts in Focus:
  • States considering legislation this year to expand opportunities for young voters: 15 (at least)
  • States considering advance voter registration for young people: 7

  • Number of votes in favor of final passage of state legislation establishing age 16 as a uniform voter registration age, 2006-2009: 979
  • Number of votes opposing such legislation: 158

  • Votes in both houses of the Connecticut legislature opposing a bill allowing primary voting for 17-year-olds: 0

In a nutshell

As a key element in what is welcome progress toward universal voter registration, a movement is growing within the states to swing the doors of our democracy wide open, encouraging and facilitating the active participation of young people in the electoral process. From education, to access, to advance registration, more and more legislators and public officials are doing their part to invite young people into the process and kick start habits that can last a lifetime.

Our analysis

When it comes to the political participation of young people, we have come to assume a certain ceiling of enthusiasm; a kind of minimum threshold of apathy that is factored into our expectations. Though last year's presidential campaigns directed significant attention to young voters, and despite having a candidate on both major party tickets imbued with youthfulness and pop culture savvy, actual youth turnout saw only a modest bump from 2004; about 1.5 percentage points according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). Though voters between 18 and 24 were 12.6% of the voting age population, they made up only 9.5% of those who actually voted.

The importance of encouraging youth participation in our democracy is difficult to overstate, and it is in our interest to avoid becoming apathetic about apathy. According to a 2003 study by Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green and Ron Shachar in the American Journal of Political Science and Mark Franklin's seminal 2004 book on turnout, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that participation in one's youth is highly predictive of future participation; in other words, voting is best made into an unkickable habit early in life. We are a country that values the long-term health of our democracy. In hoping that as many people as possible for generations to come will keep themselves informed and reliably take part in elections, we need to take active steps to get young people civically educated, registered, and voting.

And while you're reading this, those steps are beginning to take root in all corners of the country, as legislatures in several states have taken up FairVote's package of youth engagement initiatives. 2009 is shaping up to be the best year yet for "pre-registration" or "advance registration" legislation. At least fifteen states have introduced measures that would set a uniform voter registration age of 16 years old, allow certain 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections and/or encourage civic education in schools.

More than a half-dozen states, including Arizona, California, Washington, Rhode Island and Maryland, have introduced advance voter registration bills, with one chamber each in Michigan, Rhode Island and North Carolina recently passing such bills with bipartisan majorities. California has moved the bills out of a key committee. Meanwhile, Members of Congress are drafting federal legislation to boost the idea. National organizations joining our advocacy now include Project Vote, Progressive States, Common Cause, Rock the Vote and the New America Foundation.

In just one example of the broad support state pre-registration legislation is receiving, Michigan's pre-registration bill was supported by such entities and associations as the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the Michigan Association of County Clerks, the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and the Council of Election Officials, the Michigan Municipal League, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the Michigan Townships Association, and Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (a leading prospective candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination).

Broadening and deepening opportunities for civic participation - both in elections, and in governance overall - is a core part of FairVote's mission. That's why FairVote has advocated for a package of legislation that would encourage young people to become more civically minded, register to vote and participate in the political process.

Here's a look at some of the measures that we believe will help achieve those goals:

1) "Pre-registration" or "Advance Registration" of 16 and 17-year-olds:

Triggered by our advocacy for universal voter registration starting after the 2000 elections, FairVote supports the establishment of a uniform voter registration age of 16, with registrations becoming active when pre-registered youth reach normal voting age. This is in line with the previously mentioned studies showing that people who begin voting when they are young tend to become lifetime voters. Youth voting is rife with obstacles, including transience and a presumption of apathy by the political establishment. But at 16, most young people are in school and therefore relatively easy to target en masse. Additionally, at 16 most young people apply for driver's licenses and learner's permits, allowing for pre-registration to be incorporated into existing motor-voter procedures. Pre-registration would make the registration process simpler and more systematic for students and administrators and catch more young voters. Pre-registration is already on the books in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Quite literally, we can 'get 'em while they're young' - and in institutional settings like school and the DMV.

The pre-registration effort is an important step on the path towards universal or automatic voter registration, whereby all citizens of voting age would be eligible to vote without having to specifically register to do so. It brings us a step closer to an environment that favors an "opt-out" approach versus "opt-in,", as laid out in FairVote director Rob Richie's National Civic Review article in 2007, "Leave No Voter Behind" (PDF).

2) Primary voting for certain 17-year-olds:

FairVote supports allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 on or before the general election to vote in the corresponding primary election. Allowing young people in this "gap" to vote will jumpstart the process of civic engagement, and encourage them to learn about the issues that will inform their choices in the general election. Some states already allow for such voting, while others are ambiguous in their relevant regulations. Regardless, parties always have the right to do this in their nomination process if handled privately, as in caucuses. In fact, Connecticut voters supported this reform in a 2008 state constitutional amendment by about a 2 to 1 margin. (For more on this, check out FairVote's fact page on 17-year-old primary voting and our report [PDF] on how parties can make their nominating contests more democratic in general.)

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Paul Fidalgo is the communications director for FairVote, the Center for Voting and Democracy.
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