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Why not voters' education for teens?

Jack McElroy // Published April 19, 2009 in The Knoxville News Sentinel

Jack McElroy makes the case for 16-year-old advance registration and civics ed classes for Tennessee youth.

April is High School Voter Registration Month in Georgia.

Under that state's law, principals and vice principals serve as voter registrars; part of their job is to boost registration at their schools.

Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel even has a reminder on her Facebook page: "High schools are encouraged to hold voter registration drives that target students eligible to register."

Cool idea.

We know what a struggle voter participation can be. In the recent Farragut election, the town held the first "convenience voting" in Tennessee. Polls were open six days a week for 20 days running up to election day.

Turnout was up from four years ago, but it still represented a fraction of registered voters, and many citizens aren't even registered.

To boost registration and encourage lifelong voting, many states are targeting teens.

Tennessee law already requires offering registration annually at every high school. Young people can register if they'll be 18 on or before the next election.

In Knox County, registrars often come away from schools with 50-100 new registered voters, said election administrator Greg Mackay. But he'd like to do more, such as give lessons on voting's importance.

It makes sense. We provide sex ed and driver's ed. Why not voters' ed?

Some states treat voter registration as a big event on their high school campuses.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, students are elected by their peers to be deputy registrars, and schools are equipped with public address announcements urging registration:

"Attention all students. This month the Student Government Association will hold a voter registration drive … Politicians are always saying that kids don't get involved in the political process. Well, here's your chance to prove them wrong! … Look for the registration tables during National Student Leadership Week in April. … Exercise your rights and show the politicians that students really can make a difference!"

Other states are even allowing voter "preregistration."

Hawaii and Florida now let youths register at age 16, with the registrations becoming effective on the 18th birthdays. California and Rhode Island are considering bills to allow 16-year-old preregistration, too.

The beauty of 16 is that the kids can register to vote at the same time they get their driver's licenses. A double red-letter day!

I think Tennessee should move in this direction, too, with the goal of 100 percent registration in every graduating class.

But wait. I can already hear the political objections. Young voters tend to be more liberal, so why should our Republican-controlled General Assembly give Democrats a boost?

True, young voters did, overwhelmingly, go for Barack Obama in November. A Gallup poll shortly before the election showed him with a 61-percent-to-32-percent advantage among 18-to-29-year-olds.

But the youth in Tennessee, like the rest of its electorate, is likely to be leaning more red than blue these days, and the GOP should be as eager to excite young voters as the Democrats.

Besides, building political participation is the right thing to do regardless of partisanship.

I'll even nominate a lawmaker to carry such a bill: Knoxville's Rep. Ryan Haynes, a Republican who is still in his early 20s.

What a great issue for a young legislator to champion.

Jack McElroy is editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6300, at [email protected] or through his blog, The Upfront Page.