Get 'Em (Ready to Vote) While They're Young
A movement is growing within the states to swing the doors of our democracy wide open, encouraging and facilitating the active participation of young people in the electoral process.
Here's a look at some of the measures that we believe will help achieve those goals:
1) "Pre-registration" or "Advance Registration" of 16 and 17-year-olds:
Triggered by our advocacy for universal voter registration starting after the 2000 elections, FairVote supports the establishment of a uniform voter registration age of 16, with registrations becoming active when pre-registered youth reach normal voting age. This is in line with the previously mentioned studies showing that people who begin voting when they are young tend to become lifetime voters. Youth voting is rife with obstacles, including transience and a presumption of apathy by the political establishment. But at 16, most young people are in school and therefore relatively easy to target en masse. Additionally, at 16 most young people apply for driver's licenses and learner's permits, allowing for pre-registration to be incorporated into existing motor-voter procedures. Pre-registration would make the registration process simpler and more systematic for students and administrators and catch more young voters. Pre-registration is already on the books in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Quite literally, we can 'get 'em while they're young' - and in institutional settings like school and the DMV.
The pre-registration effort is an important step on the path towards universal or automatic voter registration, whereby all citizens of voting age would be eligible to vote without having to specifically register to do so. It brings us a step closer to an environment that favors an "opt-out" approach versus "opt-in,", as laid out in FairVote director Rob Richie's National Civic Review article in 2007, "Leave No Voter Behind" (PDF).
2) Primary voting for certain 17-year-olds:
FairVote supports allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 on or before the general election to vote in the corresponding primary election. Allowing young people in this "gap" to vote will jumpstart the process of civic engagement, and encourage them to learn about the issues that will inform their choices in the general election. Some states already allow for such voting, while others are ambiguous in their relevant regulations. Regardless, parties always have the right to do this in their nomination process if handled privately, as in caucuses. In fact, Connecticut voters supported this reform in a 2008 state constitutional amendment by about a 2 to 1 margin. (For more on this, check out FairVote's fact page on 17-year-old primary voting and our report [PDF] on how parties can make their nominating contests more democratic in general.)
3) Mandatory comprehensive civic education in high school:
Too many students leave high school with a limited understanding of what civic engagement and participation in our democracy entail. We encourage the use of curricula like our Learning Democracy resources that teach about the workings of democracy and the history of voting rights. Such civic education should ideally entail things like mock voting to demystify the voting process and make it less intimidating for democratic newbies. A civic education curriculum also provides an opportune moment to encourage pre-registration. Learning Democracy, FairVote's comprehensive civic education curriculum, is available at http://www.fairvote.org/learningdemocracy. (Our prototype state-based edition is available at http://www.rhodeislandsuffrage.org.)
An Encouraging Electoral Prognosis
Might we be on the verge of a kind of youth voting legislation renaissance within the states? Fifteen or more states have seen pieces of the above legislative package introduced this year alone, with action ensuing on many of these bills. Below is a listing of some of the activities in various statehouses (which might not be exhaustive - itself a tantalizing fact). Many or most of these bills were introduced, at least in part, per information received from FairVote, and we are very excited to see those efforts begin to blossom. Because the better informed our young people, the simpler it is for them to register as voters, and the more enthusiastic they are to participate, the more likely it is that our democracy will be healthy and robust for decades to come.