States Move to Create Culture of Voter Engagement through Preregistration

By Erin Ferns
Published April 9th 2009 in TPM Caf´┐Ż

The rising levels of voter participation among the nation's youth continue to be challenged by the current voter registration system, perpetuating the difficulty of fostering lifelong voters. Some states are proposing to take this challenge into their own hands by making voter registration accessible to citizens as young as 16. Already widely accessible at schools and departments of motor vehicles, the move would allow future voters in some states to automatically be enrolled on the voter rolls on their 18th birthdays, a change that advocates say could "close the registry gap between young voters and the rest of the population."  California and Rhode Island are among the states that have introduced legislation permitting 16- and 17-year-old citizens to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays. Rhode Island bills, SB 85 and HB 5005 show promise to pass the legislature - a prospect that is nothing new to the state, which has passed such bills three years in a row only to have them vetoed by the governor, according to research and advocacy group, Fair Vote.

"It's good public policy to get young people involved as early as possible in the democratic process," said Fair Vote Rhode Island Director Matt Sledge in Brown University's Daily Herald last week. The preregistration bill, he said, would "close the registry gap between young voters and the rest of the population."

Today, multiple states allow certain citizens under age 18 to preregister to vote, including Rhode Island and California. However, Hawaii and Florida are the only states to have enacted dedicated preregistration laws that permit all citizens as young as 16 to register to vote, which advocates argue is the best way to incorporate youth into the democratic process.

Institutionalizing preregistration not only makes it easier to conduct and participate in voter registration activities on high school campuses and DMVs since it captures more young people before they graduate, but it also helps "boost the effectiveness of civics education by tying it directly to civic participation through the opportunity to preregister," according to a Fair Vote report. The report further notes that "uniform" preregistration laws, like those in Hawaii and Florida, help alleviate general voter registration ills by acting as a "cost-effective step toward greater standardization, which means a cleaner, more accurate data set. Pre-registration could also save money and minimize human error by allowing students to register year round at points of civic engagement and education..."

Advocates say California is a prime place to engage and enfranchise its diverse population, which is "especially apparent in high schools today." According to a 2007 proposal for preregistration in California by the public policy group, New America Foundation, "if young people are not hooked into democratic institutions and practices while they're in high school, it becomes more difficult to do so after they leave high school."

The group emphasized that young people become more difficult to "contact or engage" directly after high school, resulting in a "'disengagement cycle' that becomes increasingly difficult to break. High school, in many cases, is the final opportunity to fully engage young people about participating in our democracy. Having common sense practices for engaging young people in high school is crucial. One of the most effective efforts is to lower the age for voter registration to sixteen."

Although California has yet to pass a bill to lower the voter registration age to 16, there is still an effort underway. Last week, preregistration bill AB 30 was reported favorably out of committee last week. It is now pending in the Assembly committee on Appropriations.

California and Rhode Island also show that they are on the right track toward engaging young people by mandating schools to serve as voter registration agencies or to facilitate drives on campus, both effective ways to facilitate civic engagement through education. The next step is to combine those good laws with legislation to lower the "effective engagement age" in order to capture more future voters while helping standardize the voter registration system in general.

Rhode Island senator and sponsor of SB 85, Rhoda Perry agrees that preregistration would "get more people involved in the civic process," the Brown Daily Herald reported. The only problem with the bill, she said, is that "the governor vetoes it." There is hope for future voters in Rhode Island, however, as preregistration is increasing gaining support in the legislature, a change that Perry said may be just enough to override the governor's veto.

To monitor youth voting bills in these states, visit www.electionlegislation.orgor subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at]