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States encourage high school students to register to vote
Some would like to mandate registration for graduates; others prefer voluntary methods

By M. Mindy Moretti and Hong Phuong Nguyen
Published June 28th 2007 in electionline.org
Throughout the month of June, millions of students graduated from high schools across the country. With the pomp and circumstance came the tears and diplomas, but should high school graduation also come with a voter registration card?

With only 51.5 percent of eligible 18 to 24 year-olds registered to vote in 2004 – compared to the national average of 65.9 percent – some voting advocates and lawmakers are calling on states to make registering to vote a requirement of high school graduation.

The 100% Registration Project, created by FairVote.org,calls for universal youth voter registration, which, the organization argues, can only be attained by having the government automatically register youths to vote or by creating a systematic process such as making registration a graduation requirement.

In a 2006 New York Times editorial, John Anderson, chairman of FairVote, and Ray Martinez, a former commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission(EAC) and currently a policy advisor to the Pew Center on the States, advocated automatic voter registration for all high school seniors.

“This approach would be a change from relying on private, nonprofit organizations to register most voters,” they wrote. “But it’s a change worth making. High schools, after all, are the ideal environments in which to introduce young Americans to voting and to impress upon them the importance of active participation in our democratic system.”

A California Assemblyman introduced legislation in January that would have made registering to vote a requirement of high school graduation.

“What we want to try to do is just increase the engagement of people in the Democratic process,” Joe Coto, D-San Jose, told a local paper upon introduction of the bill. “The percentage of people who determine the outcomes of elections is a very small percentage of the population because there are so many people not registered.”

Had the legislation been approved, California would have become the only state in the country to make voter registration a requirement of graduation. However, amendments to the bill removed the graduation requirement element and re-wrote the bill simply requiring that high schools continue to provide voter registration forms to students and subsequently, beginning with the 2009-2010 school year, report their efforts.

Kim Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation, said that while her organization does not take positions on legislation, she generally favors programs that encourage voter registration in high schools because she said they offer one of the few institutional opportunities to get people registered. Those who do not go on to college, she said, are less likely to be asked to register after they’ve graduated high school.

Despite that, Alexander said she could understand why making registration compulsory would be troubling to some.

“Registering to vote in California, as in other states requires people to turn over a great deal of personal information. The California Voter Foundation’s 2005 California Voter Participation Survey report found that 23 percent of California’s nonvoters say they aren’t registered to vote because they want their information kept private,” Alexander said. “There is also, I believe, a longstanding attitude among regular voters who resist making voting too easy because they worry that ‘less serious’ voters will cancel out their thoughtful choices.”

Instead of mandating registration, many states rely on highly visible campaigns to encourage eligible students to register to vote.

Five Ohio counties participated in a pilot program this year that had voter registration forms included in the packets graduates receive on graduation day. The pilot program, initiated by Secretary of State Jan Brunner (D) cost about $1,500 which included photocopying registration forms and mailing them to the participating high schools.

"[Younger voters] probably have a bigger stake in voting than somebody who is 60 or 70 years old," Brunner told the Toledo Blade. "This year in municipal elections, the people they're voting for now may become the future leaders of their state or even their nation. It really matters that they participate in every election that they can," Brunner hopes to take the program statewide in 2008.

Some Republicans said they were upset with the five counties Brunner chose for the pilot program because they are heavily democratic.

May 14 to 21 was Vermont’s High School Voter Registration Week. Schools throughout the state participated in a variety of events to encourage their eligible students to register to vote. According to Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, the week was created to “encourage Vermont’s high schools to register their 18-year-olds to vote before they leave school.”

Markowitz said that getting students registered while they are in high school is especially important in Vermont because Vermont is one of the only states that require registrants to take a voter’s oath.

“Students find it difficult to register while away at college, the military, or while working,” Markowitz said. “We know from experience that Vermont’s young people are more likely to vote if they register before they leave high school.”

Markowitz said that by designating a special week for registration in high school notaries or local election workers are able to be in the schools to issue the voter oath right then and there.

As for mandating registration, Markowitz said that is not something Vermont has really considered.

“We have local control of our schools and when there is a statewide mandate to do something, it can become politically pretty controversial,” Markowitz said. “Our goal is to get the students registered before we would have to jump to a mandate.”

As the first woman ever elected to the executive branch of government in West Virginia, Secretary of State Betty Ireland knows just how important it is to not only register, but to also vote.

The Voting Is Powerful (VIP) program began six years ago and has grown under the watchful eye of Ireland, who said she doesn’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to registering voters. But, she said, encouraging students to register while still in high school presents the perfect opportunity because students are learning about the democratic process.

“It [mandatory registration] is not something I have given too much thought about,” Ireland said. “It’s not mandatory for you to get a driver’s license. We know that it is the right and responsibility of citizens to register and vote and I prefer a different approach than mandatory registration.”

In Fayette County, Meadow Bridge High school was recently honored by Ireland for achieving 100 percent voter registration for its senior class for the sixth year in a row. While other high schools have achieved 100 percent registration, Meadow Bridge is the only school in the state to accomplish such a feat every year since the program began.

“Meadow Bridge is a little tiny school in the coalfields of West Virginia and they take great pride in this program,” Ireland said. “Their principal drives this program. They should be very, very proud to get this fairly isolated, little community to be so proactive about registering to vote. They are such standard-bearers of freedom and democracy.”

Although it’s a statewide program, each school has really taken ownership of the project and Ireland said they get rather competitive with each other over who can register the most students.

With an 85 percent voter registration rate statewide, for Ireland, the umbrella is getting the students to register, but the bigger picture is getting them to vote, which is why she and her staff visit as many of the high schools as they can each year doing presentations on voting rights history.

“Part of my passion is to get these kids to stay in West Virginia and aspire to high levels,” Ireland said. “I’m trying to get out and touch these kids and make them understand the history of where they are today.”

And in Florida, they are taking registration of 18 year olds out of the schools and into the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Gov. Charlie Crist (R) recently signed into law legislation lowering the pre-registration age from 17 to 16, making it possible for new drivers to automatically receive a voter registration card on their 18th birthday when they register through the DMV.

Although there seems to be a more of a concerted effort to get young people registered to vote today than ever before, registering graduating high school seniors to vote has a long history in some states. In Michigan in 1979, then-Gov. William G. Milliken signed legislation that provided high school principals or their deputies to issue registration cards on the spot and act as registrars to certify that students met the eligibility requirements.

Hong Phuong Nguyen is finishing her junior year at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C.