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Getting Teens to Register and Vote

A new effort is under way to encourage young adults to start voting and keep voting.

Election reformers have devised an idea to encourage more young people to vote -- one that just might make life easier for election administrators.

The idea is to allow 16-year-olds to “preregister” to vote. The teens would automatically be able to participate in elections once they hit the federal voting age of 18. As it stands now, states have a wide variety of rules: Some let 17-year-olds preregister and some let anyone who will be 18 by the next general election register. But until recently, only Hawaii allowed 16-year-olds to sign up.

That’s starting to change. Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., all have approved laws allowing 16-year-olds to preregister in recent years. Florida’s move was especially notable because it took place in a state with a Republican Legislature and a then-Republican governor. Young voters tend to favor Democrats.

The shift comes as technological and administrative advances have made it easier for states to keep preregistrants separate from the regular voter pool. Supporters say there’s little risk that those under 18 would actually cast a ballot. The shift also occurs at a time of lingering concern about youth political participation. Voter turnout among young adults long has lagged behind the general population, and supporters view preregistration as a partial answer to the problem. Research by George Mason University’s Michael McDonald suggests that they’re right. In a study published in 2009, McDonald found that preregistration programs in Hawaii and Florida encouraged young adults to start voting and keep voting.

Reformers envision expanded voter registration drives in high schools, and teenagers preregistering when they receive their drivers’ licenses. McDonald’s research shows that preregistration programs conducted through schools are especially effective. “Our goal is to get every eligible young person registered before they hit voting age,” says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a group pushing the changes.

If they even partially succeed in that goal, some of the biggest winners may be the people who run elections. Today voter registration drives often are conducted by partisan groups, whose work can be sloppy and timing inconvenient for administrators -- whose elections offices are inundated with registrations just before a major election. If young people begin to sign up years in advance, there’s a good chance that some of the election season’s administrative chaos would be diminished.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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