Which for Schwarzenegger on Democracy and Youth?

By Rob Richie and Ari Savitzky

This year Rhode Island’s Republican Governor Carcieri has vetoed a bill to create a uniform voter registration age of 16. Backed by a bipartisan, veto-proof majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, the bill still could become law. That would be good news for our democracy—and raises the question of just what California’s Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will do on the same bill later this year, as it continues to march through the California legislature.

Advance voter registration doesn’t lower the voter age, but instead makes it more likely that young people are ready to vote when reaching 18—contributing to a lifetime voting habit. The same proposal was signed into law this year by Florida’s Republican governor and has been done for years in Democratic Hawaii. This isn’t partisan; it’s commonsense.

Rhode Islander Amanda Gaynor, 16, explained why in testimony this spring to her state legislature: “We should be able to pre-register when we get our 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 in most states. A constantly shifting eligibility date, tied to the election cycle rather than the life cycle, makes registration drives in schools harder, and means most young people don’t get to register securely and easily when first at the DMV.

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 registered to vote, fully 81% voted in 2004—a rate comparable to that of all registered voters. But youth turnout was far lower than their elder—in the words of the US Census, being registered was the “key difference” in overall youth participation.

This simple change also could boost preparation for voting. With a uniform voter registration age, high school civics could be transformed into an induction into political reality and civic responsibility. Imagine the greater excitement a student will feel, knowing that he or she too will soon cast ballots for the array of offices they are studying-for president, mayors, school board and so on.

Let’s take how this would work from a young woman’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 her Secretary of State confirming her advance 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 advance registration. Our democracy’s long-term health depends on allowing new generations a stake in our nation’s unfolding democratic experiment.

The Rhode Island governor contends that advance voter registration is complicated and might clog up our voter rolls. In fact, advance registration only requires adding one new checkbox to the voter registration form and a simple change to a state’s central voter registry software. These one-time changes are easy and inexpensive. Once done, advance registrations can 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 which lead to bad registrations and clogs in the system.

Advance voter registration is already working well in other states and expanding into more. If both Rhode Island and California join Florida in establishing it this year, we should soon have a new national norm: you start to vote at 18, but you start to register to vote at 16. Already Florida Senator Bill Nelson has legislation to provide funds to states wanting to make this change. For the health of our democracy, let’s hope Republicans and Democrats can work together in welcome young people into our democracy.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote (fairvote.org). Ari Savitzy is the director of FairVote Rhode Island.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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