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Give Rhode Island's Young Voters a Hand

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Message Paul Fidalgo

Rhode Island’s 18-and-under crowd is facing a tough year. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s youths already live below the poverty line, and this year the legislature’s proposed budget includes no increased funding for education, which exacerbates the poverty issue for years down the line. Meanwhile, immediately upon reaching adulthood, our young people are eligible to serve in Iraq, which many see as their best option and last hope for a path out of poverty. Indeed, thus far 108 Rhode Islanders have been killed or injured in that conflict.

Given all of these state and federal policies having such a serious and personal impact on our youths’ livelihood, surely we ought to be making sure that those effected have a say in their own fate. We can do this by encouraging newly eligible voters to register and engage in the important policy debates of our time. But as the legislature is whittling away funds for education, the Rhode Island Senate is also ignoring a bill that would ease the path for youths who seek to participate in our democracy.

Unfortunately, the United States is in the position of being one of the few democracies on Earth that operates under the assumption that its citizens do not wish to participate in the democratic process. In most places around the world, governments automatically or actively register voters, while allowing them to opt out on their own simply by not showing up on Election Day. The United States, on the other hand, presumes a lack of interest from its citizenry, and therefore asks its people to jump through hoops in order to opt in to the electoral system. Not surprisingly, then, voter turnout in this country is fairly dismal when viewed through an international prism, and worse yet for our youths. Rhode Island is no exception in this category.

A major factor of our “turnout gap” is a low level of registration by young would-be voters once they come of age. In the 2004 presidential election (an election that was famous for various Internet-spurred grassroots movements in which thousands of once disaffected youths took it upon themselves to get involved) over 58 percent of eligible 18-24 year-olds did not vote. We can start to change this sad statistic by giving the ascending generation a little help, and there are some good examples of how to do it.

Last month, the Florida state legislature passed a bipartisan bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they receive a valid state driver’s license. Once they turn 18, they would receive their voter registration in the mail. The bill starts Florida on the path toward having 100 percent of its young people registered to vote, thereby welcoming them into adulthood by giving them immediate access to the democratic process. Their first duty as a full-fledged citizen will be ready for them to carry out.

Republican Governor Charlie Crist had the wisdom to sign that bill, and it is now Florida law.

Several other states now face similar decisions, including Rhode Island. The Rhode Island House passed a measure last month, introduced by Rep. Edwin R. Pacheco, that would allow 16-year-olds to pre-register, and time is now running out for it to be taken up by the Senate.

But doesn’t this sound familiar?

It should, because both houses of the Rhode Island legislature passed the very same bill last year, only to have it vetoed by Governor Carcieri. As the bill was debated, there were many claims made by detractors intentionally designed to confuse the issue, with attempts to give the impression that the bill would allow 16-year-olds to actually cast votes, which of course it would not. The eligible age to vote would remain at 18. Why Mr. Carcieri chose to veto the bill is not entirely clear.

This is about more than simply having younger voices heard in the political debate, though that is important. What is even more significant is the fact that the young voices that go unheard now grow to become old voices that are just as mute. Bad precedent after bad precedent is set as the generations pass. While the effort to get young people registered to vote is certainly about today’s civic participation, it is just as much about ensuring that there is robust civic participation in the years to come. Democracy is a good thing, and we should do whatever we can to keep it from slowly decaying into a novel ritual with no real stakes. We can start to do that by helping young people get ready to take part in that democracy.

The Rhode Island Senate needs to take up Rep. Pacheco’s bill. Lost in the dust cloud of a budget battle, the enthusiastic support the bill once enjoyed has inexplicably dimmed. The Senate needs to rediscover the duty it has to all of Rhode Island’s citizens, including those that do not (yet) have a voice in their own election, and pass this bill once again.

And this time, Governor Carcieri should find the wisdom to sign it.

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