On June 30th, the Delaware General Assembly passed HB 381, lowering the voter registration age to 16. If the governor signs the bill into law, as he is expected to do, Delaware will join Hawaii, Florida, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, and North Carolina as the sixth state to lower the voter registration age to 16- including four in the past year alone. Even as we celebrate victory in Delaware and continue to push forward with a national agenda, we must reflect and remember why these victories are so important.
Voter registration levels in the US are low and far outside the international norm. The Census Bureau reports that in the 2008 election, only 71% of the voting age population (18 and up) was registered to vote. Among younger voters, the outlook worsens; only 53.4% of the population aged 18-24 was registered to vote. If we narrow our scope to citizens who actually turned out to vote, participation rates across the board drop. The continuation of these trends will be harmful to our democracy, whose strength depends on the participation of its citizens. Yet we cannot be surprised at the low registration and participation rates in this country.
Each state, and sometimes county, has its own voter registration laws that often connect registration dates to the timing of the next general election. The result? A confusing and difficult to navigate patchwork of ever-changing voting laws and deadlines that become more of an obstacle to voting than a means to vote. If we in this country are committed to the principles of democracy, we should also then be committed to tackling these problems head on, by increasing voter access and education, and by setting a uniform standard.
States, like Delaware, which have passed Youth Voter Registration laws, acknowledge that a fundamental problem facing young voters is access to voter information. By setting the registration age at 16, legislators enable young voters to be reached while still in school (most states have laws mandating school attendance until the age of 16) or even at the DMV, where new legislation can be enacted alongside the federal Motor Voter Law (HAVA) passed in 1993. This facilitates policies that result in the systematic voter registration of nearly all young citizens as they reach voting age.
Numerous studies have shown that voting is a habit; that those who vote are more likely to vote in the future. So it makes sense to instill the value of voting at a young age and these voter registration laws are a good first step. But voter registration laws alone cannot alleviate the problem, and must be backed up by comprehensive and legislative plans to provide for more civic education. Civic education (information about the when and how of local, county, state, and even federal elections) goes a long way in boosting civic engagement and participation by removing a hurdle to voters: lack of knowledge.
By far, the single most effective means of setting a uniform standard would be to pass federal legislation mandating the 16-year old voter registration age. A uniform age standard would eliminate the confusion surrounding the voter registration age that stems from the varying local age limit and simplify voter outreach programs that operate in multiple election jurisdictions.
A diverse range of states – small and large, east and west, southern and northern, Republican-run and Democratic run --- have passed voter preregistration. Given that support, we look forward to a bill in Congress and to transforming that hope into action. In the mean time, we hope more states will join the bandwagon –hats off to Delaware for looking poised to be the latest to adopt this sensible change.
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