In an effort to boost youth voter turnout, California may try a program that would allow Golden State teenagers as young as 15 to pre-register to vote.
The bill, which was introduced earlier this week by California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), would permit teens to register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles--ideally when they're already there getting their driver's license or learner's permit--or using the state's online and mail-in voter registration systems.
"A lot of young people don't think they're a part of the political process, but this bill is saying, 'Yes, come in, we want you to participate,'" explained Jackson. "The DMV is a perfect place to offer pre-registration because, for many people, getting their driver's license is the first time they're engaging with a governmental agency.
Participants in the voter registration system would still have to wait until they actually turned 18 to vote. Current state law allows 17-year olds who have a birthday before the next election to register to vote even though they are technically still minors.
"Young people are more likely to become lifelong voters when they are engaged early, so offering the opportunity to pre-register will be a powerful tool in getting them hooked on democracy," California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who is a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement to the Sacramento Bee.
The bill would mirror successful programs in other parts of the country. Seven states and the District of Columbia currently allow teens to pre-register to vote; however, Jackson's bill would make California the only one to lower that age range to as low as 15.
A study of pre-registration programs conducted by the Michigan Journal of Legal Reform noted that, while youth voter participation typically lags behind that of older age cohorts, the proportion of young people who are registered to vote that actually do so is quite high--meaning that simply getting more teens registered would go a long way in ultimately increasing turnout.
While young people in California, and across the nation for that matter, tend to vote at a lower rate then older Americans, young voters in California can be a potent political force.
Young voters, who have a tendency to lean Democratic even though they're increasingly wary of identifying with any specific party, are largely credited with pushing a tax-hiking ballot backed by Governor Jerry Brown over the top in last November's election.
Young people made up about 28 percent of those who voted on Proposition 30, according to an exit poll from CNN, and 65 percent of them voted yes.
"We saw this amazing engagement that was fed by social media, on Facebook, on Twitter," said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, an advocacy group.
Even so, while increasing turnout among younger voters would be a boon for Democrats, it wouldn't necessarily help them in every race. University of San Francisco politics professor Corey Cook told the San Francisco Examiner that young and/or new voters tend to vote for things near the top of the ballot but tend to leave lower-profile races blank.
“The further you get down the ballot, the more things drop off,” Cook said. “New voters matter more for presidential than state and local elections.”
In 2004, Congressman Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced the Gateway to Democracy Act, which would have enacted a pre-registration program at the national level, however the legislation never made it into law.
Jackson expects her bill to be assigned to a committee in the coming months and, if passed, will likely go into effect at the beginning of 2014.