Don't Leave Young Voters Behind

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published November 1st 2006 in
Election Day problems in primaries across the country are a wakeup call for better elections policy in America. After the primary season, we saw controversy flare up again over touch-screen voting machines, improperly trained poll workers, and a lack of transparency and accountability in how we administer elections.

In light of this, it's basic to ask every state in the nation to conduct a comprehensive review of its practices. We're making a lot of mistakes, and we're missing opportunities to improve.

But even as we pursue the comprehensive review the voting process deserves, we can take a few baby steps. Let's keep on removing barriers to participation through simple changes in how we run elections. States should begin with new policy on how voters are registered -or aren't registered-in the first place.

Every year thousands of young people become eligible to vote but don't make it onto the voter rolls. According to CIRCLE, a research group on civic engagement based in College Park, MD, only 34% of 18-24 year olds without a high school diploma were registered to vote in 2000. We're seeing a huge chunk of incoming, full-fledged citizens being left behind by democracy.

This is a problem, and hardly reflects a society interested in its own democratic health. Pundits perennially decry shockingly low turnout, but talk about it more like the weather than a solvable policy issue. Voter participation is low for many reasons, but it is directly linked to voter registration practices. Those we can change.

Let's take charge of the situation. We need legislation to actively register our kids in advance at age 16. Young people already complete the Selective Service form that arrives by mail. They could just as easily register to vote by the same mechanism, which would of course include an opt-out option. The state office in charge of elections would enter citizens into a statewide database, and activate their registrations when they reach 18 and become eligible, sending them a congratulatory postcard letting them know where to vote.

Rhode Island came close to enacting a similar measure this year, passing advance registration out of the House and Senate before a veto by the governor. The state should try again, and other states should pick up where Rhode Island left off. Moreover, politicians shouldn't be afraid of trying this reform. After all, it's hard to see the political liability of trying to get young people registered to vote. It's bound to be popular.

The program would also create opportunities for partnerships with the schools, taking advantage of the civic education class every public school student already takes. When voter registration cards arrive in the mail, the class could walk through the registration process together, and discuss the mechanics and importance of voting.

With advance registration, we stand a good chance of getting close to 100% of young people registered to vote by the time they turn 18. This is an important age. By then, students have gained more than distaste for trigonometry. They have gained passage to adulthood and full citizenship. We should be ushering them not only into their economic world, but their democratic world as well.

Registering these young adults would produce a wave of thousands of new voters flowing into politics every year. Anybody can see the inherent value of such exciting enhancement of our electorate. Engaged young people will be able to vote in their first elections as soon as they are eligible. In the long term, given growing concern over elections management, a more active hand by government in how we register voters and manage voter rolls may be needed anyway.

The United States has about 70% of its eligible voters on the rolls. Ultimately, that figure should be 100%, both to encourage participation and help us run more secure elections. For now, however, state legislators can win big points with their constituents by taking an interest in the civic education of our kids, and registering them in advance. That legislation would also begin a thought process for how we can improve all voter registration, and indeed all parts of election administration throughout the country.

That would be some baby step.

Ryan O'Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election reform group in Washington DC.

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