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Vote early, vote often

// Published January 3, 2008 in Newport Mercury
This year I have to renew my driver's license before my next birthday. The last time I renewed it in 2003 I remember waiting a few extra minutes because two people in front of me were registering to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles. A bit of an inconvenience for me, but a mandate for the greater good of making it easier for more people to declare themselves eligible to exercise their democratic right.

So why did an effort to allow 16-year-old Rhode Islanders to pre-register to vote fail again in 2007? The state now lets 17-year-olds register if they will be 18 by the next election. (Take notice all you 17-year-olds with winter birthdays: Feb. 12 is the deadline to register to vote in the Rhode Island Presidential Preference Primary on March 4.)

Last year both the state House of Representatives and Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass bills to allow 16-year-olds to pre-register as they acquire their driver's licenses or at high school voter registration drives. But Gov. Donald L. Carcieri vetoed the plan, claiming there was potential for trouble keeping voter registration rolls clean.

"Problems or perceived problems with the integrity of the voter list are used to stop things that improve the quality of democracy," observed Ari Savitsky, director of FairVote RI, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group seeking to expand registration and education for young people.

Such pre-registration won't lower the voting age - it would still remain 18. But it would lower the "effective engagement age" of civic participation, according to FairVote RI. Sixty percent of registered 18- to 25-year-olds voted in Rhode Island in the 2004 election, compared to about 70 percent for all registered voters, according to state data. FairVote's rough calculation from census data and the state voter list suggests as few as 40 percent of all eligible 18- to 25-year-olds were registered to vote in the 2004 election.

Research has shown that past participation is a major factor in determining whether a voter participates in an election. There is good reason then to engage teens as early as possible. Other states already are doing it - Florida and Hawaii already pre-register 16-year-olds and Maine allows 17-year-olds to pre-register.

FairVote RI has proposed steps to safeguard voter rolls. A one-time programming modification could cost up to $20,000, but could be lower if Rhode Island incorporates the same software Maine uses to modify its own system to track voters and activate them when they turn 18.

Savitsky is optimistic about the chances of the advance registration initiative in 2008 as the proposal's higher profile coincides with a presidential election. Interestingly, 2008 has been declared the International Year of Sanitation. Sounds like a good year to make cleaner voter rolls a priority - as well as this important measure to prepare young citizens for democracy.