A simple way to encourage youth voting

Rob Richie & Ari Savitzky // Published July 4, 2008 in The Providence Journal

GOVERNOR CARCIERI has again vetoed a bill to create a uniform voter-registration age of 16. Backed by a bipartisan, veto-proof majority in both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly, the bill still could become law, with an override vote.

That’s good news for young Rhode Islanders, and our democracy.

The bill wouldn’t lower the voting age but instead make it more likely that young people are ready to vote when they reach 18, contributing to a lifetime voting habit. The same proposal was signed into law this year by Florida’s governor, Republican Charlie Crist, and has been done for years in Democratic Hawaii. This isn’t partisan; it’s common sense.

Amanda Gaynor, 16, of Providence, explained why in her testimony to the legislature this year: “We should be able to pre-register when we get our [driver’s] license, or even better, in school, in a civics class. We should have the opportunity to get engaged.”

Amanda is right. A civics student should be able to connect theory with practice. The current system is far too confusing: a constantly shifting eligibility date, tied to the election cycle rather than the life cycle, makes registration drives in schools harder, and means that most young people don’t get registered securely and easily when first at the motor-vehicle registry.

Some might conclude this is no big deal, but multiple studies demonstrate that when you vote when first eligible, you tend to become a lifetime voter. Those who stay home are far less likely to vote in the future.

Registration, ideally twinned with civics education in schools, provides a direct boost to voting. Of eligible voters under 25 who were registered to vote, fully 81 percent voted in 2004 — a rate comparable to that of all registered voters. But because of their low registration rates, youth turnout was far lower than that of their elders. In the words of the U.S. Census Bureau, being registered was the “key difference” in overall youth participation.

Pre-registration can enhance preparation for voting. With a uniform registration age of 16, high-school civics could be transformed into an induction into political reality and civic responsibility. Imagine the greater excitement that students would feel, knowing that they, too, would soon cast ballots for the offices they are studying — from president and senator, to mayor and school-board member.

Let’s examine how this would work from Amanda’s perspective. At 16, she can fill out a voter-registration form in her civics class, asking questions and learning about the voter-registration system and requirements. She checks off a box marked “I am at least 16 years old and want to pre-register.” She soon gets a letter from the secretary of state confirming her pre-registration. A year later, she gets a reminder letter with her registration information, as well as how to get an absentee ballot and change her address.

Once 18, she is automatically added to the voter rolls, far more ready to participate than without pre-registration. Our democracy’s long-term health depends on allowing new generations a stake in America’s unfolding democratic experiment.

If only the governor saw it that way: Unfortunately, he has vetoed preregistration bills each of the past three years. He is concerned it is complicated and might “clog up” our voter rolls. In fact, preregistration will only require adding one new checkbox to the voter- registration form and a simple change to the state’s central voter-registry software. These one-time changes are easy and inexpensive. In a letter to the governor this year, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis concurred that pre-registrations could be processed normally, and updated automatically.

Simple, structured data collection at schools and the DMV will actually keep the voter rolls cleaner than today. The more people registered on DMV computers or in classroom environments where they can ask questions, the lower the chance of error. The more who register systematically in the normal course of life rather than as elections approach, the less strain we put on boards of canvassers, minimizing the type of errors that lead to bad registrations and clogs in the system.

Preregistration is already working well in other states and expanding into more. Rhode Island can contribute to a new national norm: Voting starts at 18, but the registration process starts at 16. For the health of our democracy, we urge the General Assembly to continue its leadership, override the governor’s veto and welcome young Rhode Islanders into our democracy.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote. Ari Savitzky is FairVote’s Rhode Island director.