The California Legislature approved a bill last week to extend voter registration privileges to 17-year-old citizens. If signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bill would help put California youth on the road to a lifetime of democratic participation.
Nearly half of all eligible voters under age 30 nationwide were not registered to vote in 2008. Assembly Bill 30 extends voter registration opportunities to all 17-year-olds, not just those who will be 18 by the next election, as current California law allows. This change would “make implementation of preregistration more efficient and streamlined, and should lead to less confusion,” wrote Elizabeth Wu of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy group, in a press release Tuesday. AB 30 would more effectively reach young people in high school civics classes and voter registration drives, and ultimately get them on the rolls in advance of turning the legal voting age of 18.
Voter registration is “one of the largest barriers to voting,” said Steven Hill, director of the foundation's Political Reform Program, because “citizens often become energized by candidates or issue campaigns in the last weeks of an election only to find they are not registered to vote.” The idea of allowing young people to register in advance not only has them ready to participate upon turning 18, but it also instills civic duty at an early age.
“Research has demonstrated that developing good 'political engagement' habits at a younger age will increase the likelihood of civic participation as an adult,” said Hill. “AB 30 will help break the 'disengagement cycle' that often prevents young people from developing habits of participation that carry over into their adult years.”
While several states like California already permit certain 17-year-old citizens to preregister to vote, only five extend the opportunity to all 16 or 17-year-olds. States with laws similar to the pending AB 30 include Louisiana and Oregon. Preregistration is also extended to citizens as young as 16 in states like Hawaii, Florida, and most recently, North Carolina, which passed House Bill 908 into law last month.
Rhode Island also passed a preregistration bill earlier this summer, only to be vetoed by Governor Donald Carcieri. However, FairVote – a voting rights group that has long championed preregistration in the state – hopes that with the “huge majorities in favor of the bill in both the RI House and Senate this year,” the General Assembly will override the governor's veto, according to a July blog entry. Proving to be a popular year for preregistration, a similar measure was adopted by the Michigan House. The pending HB 4261 awaits a hearing in the Senate Committee on Campaign and Election Oversight.
To monitor the California and Michigan bills, visit www.ElectionLegislation.org.