Connecting young people with democracy

By Paul Fidalgo
Published July 2nd 2007 in Providence Journal
WASHINGTON -- RHODE ISLAND'S 18-and-under crowd is facing a difficult year. Nearly 20 percent of the state's youths already live below the poverty line, and this year the legislature's budget includes no increased state education funding for cities and towns, which will exacerbate the poverty issue for years down the line.

Meanwhile, immediately upon reaching adulthood, our young people are eligible to serve in Iraq, which many see as their best option and last hope for a path out of poverty. Indeed, thus far 108 Rhode Islanders have been killed or injured in that conflict.

Given that all of these state and federal policies have such a serious and personal impact on our youths' livelihood, certainly we ought to be making sure that those affected have a say in their own fate. We can do this by encouraging newly eligible voters to register and engage in the important policy debates of our time.

Unfortunately, the United States is one of the few democracies that operates under the assumption that its citizens do not wish to participate in the democratic process.

In many places around the world, governments automatically register voters, while allowing them to opt out on their own simply by not showing up on Election Day. The United States, on the other hand, presumes a lack of interest from its citizenry, and therefore asks its people to jump through hoops in order to opt in to the electoral system. Not surprisingly, then, voter turnout in America is fairly dismal, and worse yet for our youths. Rhode Island is no exception in this category.

A major factor of our "turnout gap" is a low level of registration by young would-be voters once they come of age. In the 2004 presidential election over 58 percent of eligible 18-24 year-olds did not vote. We can start to change this sad statistic by giving the ascending generation a little help, and there are some good examples of how to do it.

Last month, the Florida state legislature passed a bipartisan bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they receive a valid state driver's license. Once they turn 18, they would receive their voter registration in the mail. The bill starts Florida on the path toward having 100 percent of its young people registered to vote, thereby welcoming them into adulthood by giving them immediate access to the democratic process. Their first duty as a full-fledged citizen will be ready for them to carry out.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist had the wisdom to sign that bill, and it is now Florida law.

Several other states now face similar decisions, including Rhode Island. Both houses of the Rhode Island legislature have just passed a measure that would allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote, and it awaits Governor Carcieri's signature.

But the legislature passed the very same bill last year, only to have it vetoed by the governor. As the bill was debated, there were many claims made by detractors intentionally designed to confuse the issue, with attempts to give the impression that the bill would allow 16-year-olds to actually cast votes, which of course it would not. The eligible age to vote would remain at 18. Why the governor chose to veto the bill is not entirely clear.

This is about more than simply having younger voices heard in the political debate, though that is important. What is even more significant is the fact that the young voices that go unheard now grow to become old voices that are just as mute. Bad precedent after bad precedent is set as the generations pass.

While the effort to get young people registered to vote is certainly about today's civic participation, it is just as much about ensuring that there is robust civic participation in the years to come. Democracy is a good thing, and we should do whatever we can to keep it from slowly decaying into a ritual with no real stakes. We can start to do that by helping young people get ready to take part in that democracy.

Once thought lost in the dust cloud of a budget battle, it looked as though the enthusiastic support the bill once enjoyed had dimmed. Luckily, the legislature rediscovered its duty to all of Rhode Island's citizens, including those that do not (yet) have a voice in their own elections, and passed the bill once again.

This time, Governor Carcieri should find the wisdom to sign it.

Paul Fidalgo is communications director for FairVote.