Posted by Adam Fogel on December 10, 2009
From North Carolina to California, state legislatures across the county have moved to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. For years, FairVote has advocated setting a uniform voter registration age of 16, so young people are registered to vote when they reach voting age. Right now, states can set their registration age however they'd like, which leads to a patchwork across the country. Puerto Rico has the lowest registration age, where 14-year-olds are allowed to preregister. In contrast, you have to be 17-years and ten months-old to register in Texas. Hawaii has had 16-year-old preregistration since 1993 and Florida passed a bill allowing all 16-year-olds to preregister last year. You can find a full list of states' minimum registration ages here.
During the 2009 legislative session, North Carolina became the third state to allow 16-year-old preregistration. That bill also includes language that expands opportunities for voter registration in high schools by encouraging local election officials to work with local boards of education. California has recently passed a bill setting their preregistration age at 17-years-old, which is a good first step that will allow many more students to register before leaving high school. Rhode Island's legislature also passed 16-year-old preregistration by an overwhelming margin this year. Similar bills were introduced in Arizona (HB 2384), Kansas (HB 2256), Maryland (SB 671), Michigan (SB 61), Washington (HB 1193) and the District of Columbia (Bill 18-345).
Without a national standard, however, states will continue to have arbitrary registration ages. We think 16 makes sense for two reasons: First, 16 is when most young people get their driver's license, so we can systematically register youth through the existing "motor voter" program at the DMV. Second, the compulsory age of education in most states is 16, so setting it as a uniform preregistration age will give young people who do not graduate from high school the opportunity to register to vote.
Although setting a uniform preregistration age of 16 is an important policy, it is not a silver bullet for encouraging youth participation in the political process. Increased funding and attention to civic education is the only way we can promote responsible citizenship among our youth. Teachers need the flexibility in their classroom to teach students the mechanics of participation and why it is important to be involved in politics. We've developed a free program to supplement high school civics called Learning Democracy. If you're a teacher, feel free to download the curriculum and use the program in your classroom. Happy Constitution Day!!