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If you register them, they will vote

Adam Fogel // Published March 14, 2008 in Gazette.net: Maryland Community Newspapers Online
On Valentine’s Day, the state Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee heard testimony on a bill that would set a uniform voter registration age of 16, offering young people more opportunities to register to vote before reaching voting age.

At the hearing, senators were greeted with valentines from students from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring that read, ‘‘Don’t break my heart! Vote for SB-92.”

This simple change holds great promise for improving our democracy. The most likely indicator of a young person’s voting behavior is whether he or she is registered to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 80 percent of registered 18- to 24-year-olds actually turned out on Election Day 2004. A widespread culture of non-participation exists because of the patchwork system for registering voters.

Governments in most democracies share the responsibility for ensuring citizens are on the voter rolls, but the United States has a completely self-initiated system. Implementing a uniform registration age will foster greater political awareness, civic responsibility and establish an ethos of involvement in the political process.

Complicated system

Registration and mobilization efforts are often implemented through retail registration, which is often nonexistent during non-presidential election years and in non-battleground states like Maryland. In Maryland, some 16-year-olds can register in certain years, and in other years only 17-year-olds can register. This complicated non-uniform system creates inefficiency and discourages potential voters. It also severely limits the success of high school voter registration programs, where teachers and administrators are unsure of how to effectively register their students. Allowing 16-year-olds to register will resolve the inequality of access that exists.

Voter turnout for the general public usually hovers in the low 50s in presidential elections. Pundits claim young people are uninterested in and apathetic about the political process, but surveys show this is not true. According to a recent Time magazine survey, 74 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they have paid attention to the 2008 presidential race, up from 42 percent in 2004 and 13 percent in 2000.

There are a number of advantages to setting a uniform voter registration age of 16. Sixteen is the final year of compulsorily education in Maryland, which means even those students who do not graduate from high school have an opportunity to register to vote. By allowing 16-year-olds to register, state governments are better prepared to access this group as a bloc in a universal way, through high school civics classes — classes that should also introduce the mechanics of voting and history of suffrage to students.

Another way to encourage a more universal system of voter registration is increasing access at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Since some teenagers may be more excited about driving than voting, it makes sense to combine these two milestones in a young person’s life. Through the existing ‘‘motor voter” structure that is already in place because of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, there would be little, if any, cost associated with implementing this practice.

Passivity results

Today, governments at the state and national level have policies that anticipate nonparticipation. The opt-in, citizen-initiated voter registration regime we have in the United States encourages passive spectators instead of actively engaged participants. Setting a uniform voter registration age of 16 is the first step in showing Americans that the government not only encourages participation, but expects it.

Voter registration at the DMV should move to an opt-out system, as opposed to the current opt-in policy. High schools, universities and community colleges should be mandated by state and federal law to make a ‘‘good faith effort” in providing voter registration opportunities for all students. Every young person, regardless of his or her parent’s voting behavior or where they grow up, should have an equal opportunity to register to vote and learn the mechanics of participation.

Until we move to a progressive policy of inclusion, access and accountability, the United States will continue to rank among the bottom in terms of participation in the democratic process.

Adam Fogel is the right to vote director at FairVote, a nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization based in Takoma Park.