Feb 21 / Corey Peterson

State Lawmakers Propose to Start Engaging Voters in High School

Voter preregistration programs that allow citizens as young as the age of 16 to preregister to vote provide a great benefit to young voters and may have a positive impact on young voter turnout. This week, a few states proposed new election policies to engage the future electorate into the democratic process.

High school voter education and preregistration programs allow students to preregister to vote while concurrently learning about the importance of voting and civic activism, the electoral process, and the rules electors must follow—such as requirements for voter identification. A 2010 study conducted by Dr. Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University found that preregistration of young people “appears to have positive and persisting long-term effects on (these young voters’) voting propensities.”

Currently five states and the District of Columbia allow individuals to pre-register to vote on or after their 16th birthday: Florida, Hawaii, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Maryland. Both California and Oregon allow individuals 17 and older to pre-register, and a bill recently introduced in the California Senate by Senator Jackson would lower the voter preregistration age to 15. Legislatures in Colorado and Washington may also consider bills this term allowing 16 and 17-year-olds the ability to preregister to vote when they receive their driver’s license. However, Dr. McDonald noted that for these programs to be successful, policy makers should take steps to ensure preregistration is a component of high school curriculums.

Florida Rep. Barbara Watson has recently introduced a bill in Florida’s House of Representatives aimed at doing just that. HB 645 requires each supervisor of elections to conduct an annual voter registration and education program in each high school in the state’s 67 counties at least once each school year. The bill requires the program to be designed for maximum effectiveness in reaching and educating high school students who are eligible to register or preregister to vote, which includes those as young as 16. The program must be conducted on the school campus with assistance from the office of the supervisor of elections, and if passed, would take effect on July 1, 2013.

A similar provision was enacted in 2002 by the Department of State in their standards for nonpartisan voter education. A 2010 Project Vote study noted that county-level Supervisors of Elections in Florida have deemed these current student voter registration and education programs in their counties “tremendously effective” in increasing voter registration and turnout. Therefore HB 645 ensures that these voter registration and education programs will be codified in Florida’s statutes. HB 645 was referred to committee last week.

Similarly, Illinois state Senator Andrew Manar introduced SB2395 on February 15, which amends the School Code by requiring each public high school to serve as a place of voter registration where registration officers and deputy registration officers can accept voter registration forms from students of that high school. The bill delegates determination of the location of the registry and when the registration officers are allowed on the property to accept registration to the school board.

While promoting voter registration and education in local public high schools is certainly a benefit, Illinois does not currently provide for voter preregistration. Under current Illinois law, an individual may only register to vote if he/she will be 18 years or older on the next Election Day. Therefore while SB 2395 is an encouraging step toward promoting young voter turnout, the majority of Illinois high school students will not be able to benefit from the bill’s voter registration provisions. For SB 2395 to be truly effective in educating and registering young people, Illinois must pass a bill allowing all 16 and 17-year-olds the right to register to vote. The most recent attempt to do so was in 2011 when Sen. Michael Frerichs introduced SB 1249, which would have allowed 17 year older to register to vote. The bill was never passed.

The 2010 study by Project Vote found that states that utilize practices such as establishing partnerships, actively involving students and teachers, including a civic education component, and enacting innovative voter registration programs have registered many young voters and have effectively engaged the youth population in the democratic process. To encourage increased young voter turnout for the next election, states should initiate these types of student voter education and registration programs and must consider providing young people the opportunity to preregister to vote.

Corey Peterson is a second-year law student at American University’s Washington College of Law. She joins Project Vote as legal intern for spring 2013.

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