Engaging the Future of America: Preregistration Measures Gain Traction in Three States

Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog.

By Erin Ferns

Between 2004 and 2008, voter turnout among young people increased by two percent--or over 2.3 million voters--a triumph for this historically underrepresented group. However, with voter registration rates only increasing by one percent in spite of heightened political interest, it is clear that more that needs to be done to engage young voters beyond holding voter registration drives on high school or college campuses. While measures to provide voter registration or voter education opportunities for voting eligible Americans are important, three states have taken a step beyond by moving legislation to not only address the issue of standardizing the voter registration system, but to engage the future of America before they reach the age of 18.

Today, Hawaii and Florida are the only states that have enacted preregistration laws that permit all citizens as young as 16 to register to vote, a measure that advocates argue is the best way to incorporate youth into the democratic process.

As we reported in April, several state legislators have taken note, asserting that it may easier to conduct and participate in voter registration activities on high school campuses and DMVs with a lowered registration age. Lowering the age at which young people can register can boost "the effectiveness of civics education by tying it directly to civic participation through the opportunity to preregister," according to a Fair Vote report. The report further notes that 'uniform' preregistration laws, like those in Hawaii and Florida, help alleviate general voter registration ills by acting as a `cost-effective step toward greater standardization, which means a cleaner, more accurate data set. Pre-registration could also save money and minimize human error by allowing students to register year round at points of civic engagement and education..."

In the last few weeks, legislators passed preregistration bills through at least one chamber in California (AB 30), Michigan (HB 4261 and HB 4337), and North Carolina (HB 1260). The Michigan and North Carolina bills have been assigned to their respective Senate committees while the California bill awaits its final reading on the Assembly floor. Passage of the California bill is thought to be most significant due to its growing and diverse population, particularly among its young residents.

"Research shows that early involvement in politics leads to lifelong involvement," said California Assembly member and preregistration bill author, Curren Price (D-Inglewood) in an April press release.  "Facilitating participation by younger voters empowers and engages our youth and ultimately strengthens our entire political process." The release further notes that the passage of a preregistration law would be beneficial to the state as registration and participation rates among young Californians is woefully behind other states, ranking 36th in the nation for turnout among young voters.

Thanks to growing support from voters and advocates, legislators hoped a preregistration bill in Rhode Island would not meet another doomed ending this year. With similar bills passing the legislature in the past only to be vetoed by the governor, institutionalizing preregistration in the state looked like it finally had a solid chance when the House adopted HB 5005 in March. The bill is currently sitting in the Senate Judiciary committee, however, and no hearings appear to be scheduled at this time.

Multiple factors affect youth voter participation, many of which parallel other underrepresented groups in the electorate. High mobility rates among these groups contribute to the difficulty with meeting voter registration deadlines and dealing with other administrative problems, including list maintenance issues that lead to wrongful purges, identification laws that require voters to present photo ID with current address, and other barriers more exclusive to mobile populations.

"We need only look at the revolution that has occurred during these Presidential Primaries to understand how hungry our youth has been to play an active role in their government, and how much their participation can influence our political future," Price said.  "I want to respond to the desire of our youth and encourage them to exercise their undeniable power to influence our world."

Tags: election reform, high school, Project Vote, voter registration, Voting Rights, Youth Voting (all tags)

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