Too many young eligible voters are not registered to vote. FairVote proposes that all states establish a uniform voter preregistration age. Our suggested age is sixteen, as adopted in states like Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. Upon reaching voting age, pre-registered voters are automatically added to the voting rolls and, ideally, sent information about the mechanics of voting and the timing of the first election for which they are eligible. Evidence collected from states suggests this change will have limited or no fiscal impact, but will have a direct impact on voter registration rates and participation when implemented effectively.
FairVote is proud to be a long-time supporter of voter pre-registration, and was among the first national organizations to originally support the reform. Other pro-democracy organizations have taken up the mantle for pre-registration legislation, and FairVote no longer takes an active role in advancing this issue. However, we proudly maintain a set of helpful research and resources for those who want to learn more and work to adopt voter pre-registration in states across the country.
Does a national voter registration age already exist?
No. In some states, all 17-year-olds and some 16-year-olds can register. In other states, some 17-year-olds and no 16-year-olds can register. In many states eligibility changes year to year based on the date of the next election. The lack of uniformity creates confusion and makes it harder to run effective voter registration and education programs in schools and at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Does voter pre-registration affect the legal voting age?
No, Lowering the advance-registration age does not change the voting age. The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets the voting age at 18 years old. Local and state jurisdictions can lower the voting age if they so choose, but this is separate policy from voter registration.
Why is 16 years old a sensible age for advance registration?
When applying for a driver’s license, a 16-year-old can register to vote at the DMV.
16 years old is the compulsory school attendance age limit in most states.
Many states already allow 16-year-olds to register during parts of the election cycle.
Why aren’t the current registration programs in high schools good enough?
Registration drives typically do not focus on anyone other than seniors, and generally are most effective only during presidential election years. Currently, there is no statutory requirement for voter registration in schools. Implementation of a standardized voting curriculum would encourage students to learn about the mechanics of participation (i.e. requesting absentee ballots).
Does registering to vote at a younger age have long-term benefits?
Yes. Some states have already recognized the importance of early participation by allowing 17-year-olds to serve as full-time election judges. In addition, voter pre-registration has the potential to boost turnout. Academic studies and electoral analyses show that voting behavior is habit-forming. If you vote, you will likely keep voting. If you don’t vote, you probably won’t start. Its important to engage prospective voters early on to create a habit of voting and civic engagement.
Will this require states to adopt a new voter registration system?
No, a uniform pre-registration age does not require a new registration database system. In many states, advance-registered voters already are inputted into the voter registration database as “pending.” A State’s Board of Elections transfers “pending” voters to “active” status when they become eligible to vote.
In 2009, Dr. Michael P. McDonald, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, secured funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts to study voter pre-registration and implementation tactics in the two states with a pre-registration age of 16: Hawaii, where it became law in 1993, and Florida, where it passed in 2007. Dr. McDonald’s key finding is that voter pre-registration seems to have a measurable impact on voter registration when certain actions are taken to reach out to young people. Here are successful elements of these states’ voter pre-registration programs.
In Florida, Supervisor of Elections staff came to schools for one day and conducted registration drives through individual classroom visits or school-wide assemblies.
Student groups (such as Student Government Associations) and teachers have conducted their own drives on a volunteer basis, after being trained by election staff.
At registration drives, students can be given “I registered” stickers or other paraphernalia to show their pride and encourage others, including their parents, to register and vote.
Registration forms can be made available in school and public libraries and other public venues, without any active encouragement.
Officials can mail forms to students eligible for pre-registration by using the school rosters and enclosing registration forms with handouts that most students receive (like diplomas).
In Hawaii, election officials have mailed registration forms to every eligible student, coordinated with volunteers to organize registration drives (schools are not required to participate), and worked with larger efforts similar to Rock the Vote to conduct assemblies.
Pre-registration does not require a new registration database system nor any new software, equipment, or personnel. In fact, in many states, pre-registered voters are already put into the voter registration database as “pending” and are transferred to “active” status once they become eligible to vote.
In states where voter pre-registration has been implemented, the proposed legislation has typically had a fiscal note stating that the bill would have "zero impact" on the state's budget. Moreover, modifications to voter registration information technology systems are typically accomplished through internal staff time and managed within existing resources.
The fiscal notes for the pre-registration bills in Washington and Maryland, for example, stated that pre-registration would have no fiscal impact for the state Department of Licensing. Indeed, the only costs that could not be managed through the state's current staff and resources were related to determining whether the current election management systems had the capability to hold pending applications for up to two years, and to withhold pre-registration records from public inspection and copying.
Some additional changes may need to be made, including revision of registration forms. However, these changes can be strategically managed by election officials, so that implementation is tied to when new forms are scheduled to be printed.
Voter registration cards may need to be updated and existing stock of old cards replaced. Printing cost is tied to the implementation date, and a good time to implement is after an election year as cards are typically replenished then anyway.
Computer programs at the state board and DMV must be updated. At the state board, the coding of state-wide voter registration databases must be updated in order to establish a procedure for activating pre-registered voters when they become eligible to vote. This is only necessary for the changes involving use of the date-of-birth field. At the DMV, the software has to be updated to change when staffers offer registration to young persons.
There may be mailing costs for the county. For example, the North Carolina practice is to send a letter of acknowledgment to a pre-registered young person explaining their status.
School outreach may need to be more frequent. For example, voter registration drives in high schools may be annual instead of biannual. This additional voter education could also be managed in partnership with high schools and local community groups.
Analysis: Dr. Michael McDonald analyzes the effects of voter pre-registration in a 2009 report.
This table includes information on when and in what states 16- and 17-year-olds can preregister to vote, organized by state. This information was last updated in January 2016.