Legislative Efforts to Engage High School Students Move Quietly Forward

by Erin Ferns

With an estimated 23 million 18-29 year old citizens turning out to vote in the 2008 presidential election, it is easy to assume that young people today have overcome the stereotypical image of "apathetic youth." Yet, while the last few election cycles show an ever-growing interest in political engagement, young people are still underrepresented in the U.S. electorate--a problem that seems to have more to do with lack of access than lack of interest.

According to nonpartisan research group CIRCLE, an estimated 52 percent of 18-29 year olds voted in November 2008. While that shows a four percentage point increase in turnout since 2004, young people still turned out at least five percentage points below the national average. Furthermore, the youth electorate itself disproportionately represents educated, White citizens. While the youth electorate in 2006 was more diverse that the general electorate--a trend that estimates say continued in 2008--the highest registration and voting rates were among White youth. This gap reflects the existing disproportions on American college campuses, which are still the focus of most youth-focused voter registration programs.

The American youth's under-representation in the general electorate, coupled with the disproportionate representation within the youth electorate itself, suggests a need to make voting more accessible for all of today's youth, not just the college students. Unfortunately, constructive reforms that would improve the administration of elections have been overshadowed by the economic crises in all but a few state legislatures where lawmakers are quietly moving bills that would help engage the future of America. Here are a few of the youth-targeted voting reforms that are focused on engaging young people beyond the college campus.

Lowering the Voting Age

Youth voter advocates argue that citizens who become politically engaged at a young age become lifelong voters. With that, some states have considered expanding access to the democratic process by extending voting rights to citizens younger than 18.

The most common trend in youth-targeted legislation is to provide primary voting rights for certain 17-year-old citizens. This year, nine states introduced bills that would allow 17-year-olds to cast ballots in primaries if they will be 18 by the following general elections. At this time, only Rhode Island's H 5005 appears to be gaining traction in the legislature. Currently, eight states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries. One additional state, Connecticut, is moving towards implementing last year's amendment to the state constitution providing primary voting rights to citizens under age 18 through House Bill 6439.

This year, only two states, Arizona and Minnesota, looked beyond primary voting and proposed to extend full voting rights to 16-year-old citizens. In neither state do the bills appear viable. To date, no states permit 16-year-olds to vote in any election.

Civic Engagement

Several states proposed legislation to help engage young voters by instilling the value of democracy through education and incorporation in the democratic process, including voter education classes on high school campuses and student poll worker programs.

This year two states have proposed to incorporate education on the voting process in the high school curriculum. Kentucky House Bill 155 is active in the legislature, passing the House and appearing to rapidly gain approval from the Senate. It is currently in the Senate Rules committee.

One state, Texas is considering a way to include high school students in the democratic process even if the students are still too young to actually vote. The bill, H 252, which allows qualified students who are at least 16 years old to serve as poll workers, has recently advanced in the House

Voter Registration Opportunities

Perhaps taking note of the largely successful youth voter turnout rates in the 2008 primary and presidential elections, lawmakers in at least five states are considering measures to further increase youth voter participation by providing voter registration opportunities on high school campuses.

A noteworthy bill, New Jersey's AB 2752, requires public and private schools to provide voter registration materials for eligible high school students prior to graduation. The bill was adopted by the assembly and is now in the Senate Elections committee.

Today, voter registration opportunities for young citizens is most commonly administered through preregistration with about half of the country already allowing 16 and 17 year-old citizens to preregister to vote. This year, just three more states are considering such measures. None of these bills have advanced since mid-February.

Recent trends in youth voter participation are enough to dismantle the apathy cliché, but not enough to dismiss constructive youth voting policies.  Still, the youth electorate continues to lag behind the general electorate, a problem that only perpetuates its representational bias. The real issue of voter access should be a focal point for lawmakers and advocates who want to encourage all young citizens, beyond the college campus, to let their voices be heard.

To monitor youth voting legislation, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.

Tags: civic education, Connecticut, election integrity, election reform, Kentucky, new jersey, registration, voting age, Voting Rights, youth (all tags)

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