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

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My colleagues prepared this excellent analysis that I wanted to share here. See our Innovative Analysis here.

Facts in Focus:

States considering legislation this year to expand opportunities for young voters: 15
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.)

3) Mandatory comprehensive civic education in high school:

Too many students leave high school with a limited understanding of what civic engagement and participation in our democracy entail. We encourage the use of curricula like our Learning Democracy resources that teach about the workings of democracy and the history of voting rights. Such civic education should ideally entail things like mock voting to demystify the voting process and make it less intimidating for democratic newbies. A civic education curriculum also provides an opportune moment to encourage pre-registration. Learning Democracy, FairVote's comprehensive civic education curriculum, is available at http://www.fairvote.org/learningdemocracy. (Our prototype state-based edition is available at http://www.rhodeislandsuffrage.org.)

An Encouraging Prognosis for Action in the States

Might we be on the verge of a kind of youth voting legislation renaissance within the states? Fifteen or more states have seen pieces of the above legislative package introduced this year alone, with action ensuing on many of these bills. Below is a listing of some of the activities in various statehouses (which might not be exhaustive - itself a tantalizing fact). Many or most of these bills were introduced, at least in part, per information received from FairVote, and we are very excited to see those efforts begin to blossom. Because the better informed our young people, the simpler it is for them to register as voters, and the more enthusiastic they are to participate, the more likely it is that our democracy will be healthy and robust for decades to come.

Progress this legislative session:

Arizona: Representative Ed Ableser introduced HB 2384 and HB 2026, respectively allowing for pre-registration of 16-year-olds, and for 17-year-old primary voting.

California: Assemblyman Curren Price introduced AB 30, to allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote. It has passed the House Elections Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. It may see a floor vote as soon as the first week of June..

Connecticut: House Bill 6439 implements a recently passed amendment to the State Constitution to allow for 17-year-old primary voting. It has unanimously passed both the House and Senate.

Illinois: House Bill 2629 by Representative Kathy Ryg would allow for 17-year-old primary voting.

Kansas: House Bill 2256 by Representative Milack Talia would create a uniform pre-registration age of 14-years-old. (FairVote is supportive of the philosophy that underpins this legislation, but would suggest that a 16-year-old pre-registration age would be sufficient.)

Kentucky: Provisions for pre-registration for 16-year-olds and mandatory public education about elections were introduced by Senator Jerry Rhoads, in the form of an amendment to Senate Bill 109.

Maryland: Senate Bill 671, allowing for pre-registration of 16-year-olds, was introduced by Senator Jamin Raskin. The bill did not get out of committee, although testimony from the Maryland Board of Elections indicated that it would have no fiscal impact.

Massachusetts: Representative Ellen Story has introduced House Bill 3895, allowing for pre-registration of 16-year-olds. House Bill 1592 by Representative Steve D'Amico would allow for 17-year-old primary voting.

Michigan: House Bill 4261, by Representatives Lesia Liss and Matt Lori, would allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote. It passed the House on May 14th by a 92-18 margin, with majority support from both Republicans and Democrats and a broad coalition from across the spectrum. Senator Cameron Brown has introduced a companion bill, as SB 61. (The bill has some limitations on where registration can take place, and what sort of identification is necessary to register.)

Minnesota: HF 873 by Representative Paul Marquart and SF 606 by Senator Ann Rest would allow for 17-year-old primary voting.

New York: A 5110 by Assemblyman Michael Cusick would amend the state constitution to permit 17-year-old primary voting.

North Carolina: HB 1260, by Representative Angela Bryant and others, is known as the "Teen Pre-registration and High School Civic Education Act." Passed by the House with a 102-14 vote, it. allows for 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote and requires local boards of education to develop plans to educate high school students in voter registration and voting. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats supported the legislation, while it was backed by civic groups that included Democracy North Carolina, FairVote North Carolina. League of Women Voters of North Carolina, NC Center for Voter Education, NC Civic Education Consortium, Common Cause North Carolina, El Pueblo Inc. and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Rhode Island: House Bill 5005 by Representative Edwin Pacheco passed the House on March 10th by a margin of 56-10, while Senate Bill 85 by Senator Rhoda Perry passed the Senate on March 19th by a margin of 32-2. Both bills would allow for the pre-registration of 16-year-olds and saw support from half of the Republican caucuses, in addition to a majority of Democrats.

Washington: House Joint Resolution 4204 by Representative Zack Hudgins would propose a constitutional amendment to allow 17 year-olds to vote in primaries, while House Bill 1193 By Representative Marko Liias would allow 13-year-olds to pre-register to vote. (As in the case of the Kansas legislation, we believe that a 16-year-old pre-registration age is sufficient.)

Wisconsin: The introduction of FairVote's youth-engagement package is expected, upon passage of the state's budget in June.

Wyoming: House Bill 76 allows for the pre-registration of all voters who will be 18 as of the next general election. This is an advance, and will sometimes allow 16-year-olds to register, depending on the point in the electoral cycle. (A uniform 16-year-old voter registration age would be less confusing, and more practicable.)

Related Links

Project Vote's Erin Ferns blogs at TPM on Pre-registration

Progressive States Network: Expand Youth Voting

Brennan Center's resources on modernizing voter registration

New America Foundation on Pre-Registration

Rock the Vote Supports CA and RI Pre-registration Bills

Common Cause on Voter Registration Reforms

Michigan House Legislative Analysis of Pre-registration

FairVote North Carolina Voter Pre-registration and Education Project

FairVote Rhode Island on Pre-registration

FairVote.blog: Pawlenty Vetoes Automatic Registration Bill

Katrina vanden Heuvel advocates for universal voter registration in the Nation