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Rhode Island Legislature Passes 16-year-old Voter Pre-registration Bill

by Marisa Cabrera // Published June 26, 2006
Fifth in a series of guest blog posts by FairVote interns.

Last week the Rhode Island legislature passed a bill allowing 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote. With the support of Guillaume de Ramel, a leading Secretary of State candidate, and state legislators, Rhode Island will soon join Hawaii as one of the only two states to permit pre-registration at 16. According to the legislation, "this act would authorize persons 16 and 17 years of age who preregister to vote to automatically be registered upon reaching age 18." What this means is not the 16 year-olds would be eligible to vote - BUT that they would be able to register to vote and their registration would become active when they turned 18. So why is this important? First, this means that when youths apply to get learner's permits, they are eligible to participate in the "motor voter" program along with adults applying for full driver's licenses. Second, this means cleaner, more accurate rolls, as there won't be a surge in youth registrations to deal with in the months and weeks right before an election.

But most importantly, this would encourage more youths to participate in our political process - right out of the gates - at age 18.

International data show solutions exist and that the concept of 100% voter registration is feasible. With the United States only reaching about 71.7% voter registration, we are at the lower end of the scale amongst less developed countries, such as Cameroon and Paraguay. In addition, considering the record-breaking low 3.45% turnout rate in the most recent Virginia primary, we must ask ourselves why these figures are permissible?

Fortunately, Rhode Island and Hawaii appear as though they are taking active measures in the right direction to solve these problems. Decreasing the voter registration age to 16 will provide the opportunity for students to register before they graduate and could potentially register dropouts as well. Although pre-registration is a crucial stepping-stone towards 100% registration, voter education is necessary to increase voter turnout. Implementing voter education into the school system will increase ballot integrity, a sense of self-efficacy, and voter interest among today"s young voters.

If a student is already registered to vote, the lessons of high-school courses in civics, American history, and constitutional law will gain immediate relevance, de Ramel said yesterday. "There's much more incentive to stay informed about your local, state and federal elections," he said. - The Providence Journal

Allowing students to pre-register at 16 is an important first step towards increasing both ballot access and ballot integrity. With pre-registration, students will have the opportunity to graduate from high school knowledgeable of the voting process and with their names on the voter rolls.

Marisa is a summer intern at FairVote. She attends Williams College and is from Brooklyn, NY. During her free time, Marisa enjoys interpretive dance as well as attending body building competitions.