State Voter Registration Agenda

The ultimate goal of FairVote's 100% Registration Project is universal voter registration, where the government shares responsibility with its citizens for ensuring full and accurate voter rolls. The United States can accomplish this goal through federal action, where Congress requires all states to implement a system of universal voter registration through compiling pre-existing statewide databases and fail safe registration on Election Day.

In the meantime, states can move forward without congressional action by introducing legislation in the spirit of universal voter registration. Simple, common sense reforms like setting a uniform voter registration age of 16 will systematize the process of voter registration and add new, young voters to the rolls. Establishing automtic voter registration through the DMV, post office and tax lists will take the burden of voter registration out of citizens' hands. Standardizing civics education throughout the state will ensure our newest voters have all of the tools they need to make informed decisions and understand the mechanics of participation. Allowing 17-year-olds, who will be 18 by the general election, to vote in the corresponding primary will enable first-time voters to have a say throughout the entire election process.    

Youth Voter Preregistration
An innovative approach to voter registration that is gaining momentum in the states is the adoption of youth preregistration (sometimes referred to as advance-registration) policies. Currently, a national uniform voter registration age does not exist. 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 it changes year to year based on the date of the next election. This lack of uniformity creates confusion and makes it more difficult to run effective voter registration and education programs in schools and at government agencies. Hawaii has had this policy in place for over a decade and Florida established 16-year-old advance registration last year. Similar bills have been introduced and are gaining momentum in Rhode Island, Maryland, Michigan and California.

Setting a uniform voter registration age of 16 will diminish the burden and cut down on costs for local election officials who have been inundated with voter registration forms in the weeks leading up to the voter registration deadline. Systematically registering young people at 16 will make voter registration a year-round activity and not the cyclical ritual we currently have every two or four years. The policy will also give newly registered voters ample opportunity to learn about candidates and issues because they will have nearly two years to follow the political process, thereby becoming informed first-time voters. Finally, setting a uniform voter registration age of 16 will enable students to register to vote in a nonpartisan school environment. One of the drawbacks of the current system is that outside groups have notoriously pressures young people to register with a particular party--the option for high schools to hold systematic registration drives will diminish opportunities for abusive registration tactics.

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Automatic Voter Registration
One reform legislators around the country are proposing are bills that would automatically register citizens to vote. From government initiated registration at the DMV to linking voter registration to a state's tax database, states are moving toward a system where the government shares the responsibility of maintaining full and accurate voter rolls with its citizens. 

In 2007, Minnesota legislators introduced a bill that would automatically register anyone applying for a driver’s permit or a state-issued identification card, unless the person affirmatively declined. A law like this would create a system where the default position for a citizen would be participation, as opposed to our current system where non-participation is the standard. The Department of Motor vehicles would transfer the names of new voters to the Secretary of State’s office, which would check for eligibility or duplication. This bill also included a provision that became state law the following year, connecting the U.S. Postal Service to the Secretary of State’s office, which would receive names of individuals filling out change of address forms once a month.

Legislators in New York and California have both introduced legislation that links the state income tax database to the voter registration list. When citizens file their taxes they are also registered to vote at the same time. This innovative proposal has caught the nation's attention in the wake of thousands of complaints during the 2008 presidential election about inaccurate voter lists. Before Congress takes action to require automatic voter registration, state legislators can get out in front of this issue and make their state a national leader in this important area.

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Standardized Civics Education Curriculum
Every student, regardless of where they attend high school should leave prepared to participate in our democracy. The problem is that many states do not have standardized civics education requirements, which creates an ad hoc system of preparing students for political participation. While most states have standards for teaching U.S. History or Government, the "mechanics of participation"--how to register to vote, request an absentee ballot, what to expect on Election Day--is often ignored.

Our solution is for state legislatures to pass laws that clearly define what students should know about participating in the political process. This curriculum should be twined with voter registration drives, so students not only know how to register, but actually have their names added to the voter rolls at the same time. Students should have an opportunity to practice voting on actual equipment, know how to vote if they'll be absent from their home on Election Day and understand their rights as voters. Some states have proposed laws that designate "voter registration weeks" twice a year for high schools and others have added requirements to the federally mandated Constitution Day celebration on September 17.

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17-year-old Primary Voting
State legislatures and political parties can take action in allowing citizens who will be 18-years-old on or before the general election to vote in their party’s corresponding primary or caucus. A notable portion of citizens who have the right to vote in the general election in November currently do not have a voice in determining who will be on that general election ballot. Granting voting rights in primaries and caucuses to these 17-year-olds is only fair and will increase their political engagement through participation. Policymakers can implement this reform by state law or party rule.

Currently, about half of states or state parties allow 17-year-old primary voting. Those states include: Alaska, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Connecticut and Washington. Most have done this by state law, but others by changing party rules. In Alaska, Kansas, North Dakota and Washington, 17-year-old Democrats may caucus, but are barred from participating in the Republican caucus. This patchwork policy creates confusion and can potentially disenfranchise eligible voters. In November 2008, Connecticut voters overwhelmingly passed this reform through referendum, which shows the popularity of this common sense proposal.

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