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Giving teens a civic voice

Ashley Holloway Foxx // Published September 27, 2009 in The Fayetteville Observer

"Can you hear me now?"

Remember that commercial for a popular cell phone company? The network traversed the country to ensure that everyone who spoke could be heard. In our democracy, your voice is your vote, and beginning in January, a chorus of teenagers will be given a greater opportunity to find their civic voices in North Carolina.

How? For the first-time ever, 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to "pre-register" to vote. They will automatically become full registered voters when they turn 18.

During these uncertain times, the most important way to ensure our country's continued success is through the education of our youth. For years, North Carolina schools have taken the time to educate young people on the importance of civics. However, with most civics education occurring in the 10th grade, the process of voter registration and voting remains abstract and something for the distant future.

Voter pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds changes that. It provides a clear and practical way to draw the youth of our state directly into the voting process.

Inclusive democracy

Studies show that the earlier citizens take part in the democratic process, the more likely they will become voters for life. Under North Carolina's new voter pre-registration and education law, local boards of education and boards of elections are encouraged to creatively work together to empower youth by pre-registering them and educating them on the voting process. In addition, the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles will be required to ask new drivers, ages 16 and 17, if they would like to pre-register to vote. This agency alone can add thousands of teens to the rolls of voters once they reach voting age. The information they provide also must be verified just as it is for all first-time voters.

North Carolina already does many things to encourage youth voting. For example, we are one of the few states that allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections as long as they will be 18 by the date of the general election. Also, college students are allowed to register and vote at their college addresses if they choose to do so. Now, we are only the third state to allow voter pre-registration (the others are Hawaii and Florida). This speaks well of our state's desire to create a more vibrant and inclusive democracy.

In Cumberland County, turnout for municipal primary and general elections is dismal. Low turnout trumpets the voices of a few over the masses. By encouraging 16- and 17-year-old citizens to pre-register, we engage them in the voting process early on. Greater youth involvement will strengthen our democracy for decades to come.

Voter-owned elections

With young adults across the state getting more involved in the political process, we must re-evaluate another part of our system that unfairly hinders their success. The increasing cost of national, state and even local campaigns prohibits many people from running for elected office. We need a publicly funded "voter-owned elections" option for qualified candidates without access to wealth. Most young adults couldn't even consider raising $70,000 to run for mayor or $150,000 for a state legislative race.

We say that we want the young people of this country to be responsible and give back to our community. Are we not being hypocritical by telling those same youths that they cannot run a viable campaign because they are too poor? Voter-owned elections programs help young voters and other underrepresented segments of our society gain greater access to the political system.

Starting in January, at the young age of 16, citizens across the state can embark on a pathway that will empower them for a lifetime. Let us encourage North Carolina's teens to pre-register to vote, become involved in reform efforts and find their voices so that we can hear them loud and clear.

Ashley Holloway Foxx is a graduate of Terry Sanford High School and UNC-Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, Brian, and her daughter, Madison, and works as a field organizer in the Fayetteville area for Democracy North Carolina (democracy-nc.org).