YOUTH VOTER TURNOUT RATES have trailed far behind turnout rates of older voters in the United States for decades. Entrenched stereotypes make the excuse that young people are apathetic and self-centered. Enter Making Young Voters, by John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus, which is here to say “think again” and to set the record straight.

Through in-depth social science and policy research and analysis, the authors show that the problem is not that young people don’t care about anything but TikTok. Young people understand the value of health, safety, education, equal rights, economic prosperity, clean energy, environmental preservation, freedom, security, peace, and happiness. Instead, obstacles to voting stand in their way. Holbein and Hillygus further explain which policies work and which do not in increasing youth turnout.

The book is instructive for anyone who thinks the voices of young people matter. This includes lawyers, educators, policymakers, parents, activists, and young adults themselves. 

Some of the book’s conclusions deserve front page headlines. 

Headline 1:  

Most civics instruction has no effect on youth voter turnout rates. The reason: Most civics instruction focuses on rote memorization and fails to connect important lessons about the structure of government to the actual exercise of power about things that matter. Combining education that teaches kids how they can affect policy outcomes with curriculum focused on social and emotional development has a much better chance of making a difference.

Headline 2:

Allowing high school students ample time to register to vote before graduation has a real and positive impact. Holbein and Hillygus understate the point a bit in summarizing their own finding along with other studies in the field: “In short, the best evidence available suggests that preregistration is an effective electoral reform to increase low youth turnout.”

This one seems so obvious that it should need no headline. But, in fact, it needs a huge headline because most people do not appreciate the extent to which young people have a legal right to register to vote while still in high school. Preregistration laws allow students as young as 16 to preregister to vote and add these students to the voter rolls automatically on their 18th birthday. Expanding and taking advantage of preregistration laws could have an enormous impact on our political life.

Headline 3:

Other electoral reforms also help to increase youth voting, but some have not lived up to their promise. Among the most effective has been “same-day registration,” which the authors define as laws allowing voters to register on the same day that they turn out to vote, including during early voting periods. Online registration also makes a difference.  

In contrast, the following reforms have not had a measurable impact on youth voting: early voting (without a same-day registration option), election day registration (without an early voting option), and no-excuse absentee voting.

Headline 4:

Some voting reforms are especially helpful in narrowing income or wealth gaps in youth voting. Of special note in this regard are preregistration and online voter registration. In addition, while absentee voting has little effect on youth turnout overall, it does have a meaningful positive impact on turnout for young minority voters.

Also noteworthy:

The authors also provide some discussion of other electoral reforms, without making headline-worthy conclusions. Automatic voter registration in connection with DMV transactions (effectively allowing an opt-out instead of an opt-in) seems promising but has not been around long enough to determine its impact on youth voter turnout. While some groups advocate lowering the voting age to 16 for municipal and school district elections, very few young people have taken advantage of the few laws that have been passed to do so. And compulsory voting, while effective in increasing youth turnout, “is not a very realistic reform.”

Practical applications and further research

The research presented in Making Young Voters has enormous potential for immediate practical application and serves as a guide to direct further research.

Preregistration

Let’s start with preregistration, an electoral reform that has not received enough attention among reformers, policymakers, or educators. More than 3.5 million high school students graduate every year. The vast majority of students in all 50 states are eligible to register before they graduate. A total of 34 states allow young people a year or more to register before their first opportunity to vote in a general election. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow young people to preregister when they turn 16, and four allow preregistration as soon as a person turns 17. Fifteen additional states allow young people to sign up if they will be 18 by the date of the election in November (some give a full two years between federal general elections and some give one year).

That leaves just 16 youth voter suppression states with more restrictive laws. Even in these states, however, most young people are old enough to register before their high school graduation.

Despite the potential these laws create, no national infrastructure exists to get high school students registered. States also lack genuinely effective systems to accomplish this goal. Even in states that have adopted the most pro-youth-voting statutes, public and private implementation remains spotty.

Here in voter-friendly California, which allows young people to preregister at age 16, the rate of preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds is less than 20 percent. The preregistration rate in Los Angeles County is under 15 percent even with “automatic voter registration” at DMVs. In 2019, our governor vetoed legislation that would have required high school programs to implement voter registration programs.

Other states have also failed to implement preregistration effectively. As of last year, Maine’s preregistration rate was less than one percent. In Arizona, the registration rate for 17-year-olds in the state’s two largest counties, Maricopa and Pima, stood below 15 percent as of this spring. Rates in other states have lagged far behind where they could be: Delaware, 11 percent; Colorado, 31 percent; Maryland, 35 percent; Massachusetts, 25 percent; North Carolina, 39 percent; Rhode Island, 19 percent; Utah, 14 percent; West Virginia, 14 percent.

Making Young Voters focuses more on the correlation between preregistration laws and turnout rather than the impact effective implementation of preregistration laws might have. The biggest obstacle to youth voting is simply not being registered. In presidential election years, young people vote at rates approaching those of older Americans when they are registered. As an encore, the authors could focus on best practices for implementing preregistration laws and the correlation with turnout.

Online Voter Registration

COVID-19 has upped the urgency of making the technical process of voter registration easier to accomplish through remote means. We are already seeing that the number of new registrations has fallen dramatically when compared to 2016.

As it relates to young people, one reason online registration has not made the dramatic changes one might expect is that many state online voter registration systems require would-be voters to have a driver’s license or state ID. Even without a pandemic, young people disproportionately do not have state-issued IDs. With COVID-19, many offices where IDs are issued are closed and, even if open, obtaining the necessary ID would involve significant health risks.

This is not a red-state problem. New York City has a system that would allow people without a state-issued ID to provide the last four digits of their social security number and an image of a signature in order to register. The system is similar to one already in place in Pennsylvania. But the New York Legislature has so far failed to authorize its use.

Colorado previously boosted both preregistration beginning at age 16 and online voter registration, but the state’s online voter registration system did not accept registrations for anyone under age 18. That problem has happily been resolved, but the system still requires a driver’s license or state ID to register, creating a new obstacle for young voters.

California Senator Kamala Harris has proposed the VoteSafe Act to fix the ID problem at the federal level. This law would, among other things, require upgrading state online voter registration portals to allow users to register without a state DMV record. Time is running out for such changes to be enacted and implemented prior to November.

Published at the start of 2020, Making Young Voters could not possibly cover the relationship between online voter registration and COVID-19-related developments. But as with preregistration, the book’s findings show the urgent need for a second act that gets into the details of implementing different systems and that guide future policymaking.

Automatic Voter Registration

As indicated above, the authors have identified the need for further research on automatic voter registration (AVR). As with online systems and preregistration, they should be on guard that the devil is in the details.

For example, many young people do not get driver’s licenses at all, and when they do, they often apply for their learner’s permits and provide relevant identification when they are 15 and a half, before they are eligible to preregister, even in states that allow preregistration at age 16. In that case, they are left out of many AVR systems because many state DMVs are not set up to offer these students a chance to preregister again when they come for their driver’s tests or at other times after they turn 16. California has both preregistration at 16 and automatic voter registration. But if the two programs were working in concert, our preregistration rate would not still be below 20 percent.

School-based programs

Further research would also be helpful to understand the effect of state and local laws, policies, and programs that operate at the school level. Making Young Voters effectively argues that robust social and emotional learning is positively tied to improved voter turnout. Holbein and Hillygus, however, give less attention to school-based programs that seek to make sure all students are registered to vote.

Some states have laws designating school officials as deputy registrars or requiring high schools to distribute voter registration forms. California and Texas, for example, have such laws. Yet, even before COVID-19, compliance with these laws was spotty.

Some states and local jurisdictions offer awards or special recognition for schools that have effective voter registration programs. Some schools make time in class to help students register or host voter registration drives with students taking the lead in organizing. Some schools welcome volunteers from community groups. Others do not. In some states, like Texas and Colorado, volunteers must receive a state or local certification in order to collect voter registration forms. In other states, holding a volunteer-based voter registration drive is far simpler.

Beyond the classroom, groups like YMCA Youth & Government, Junior State of America, March for Our Lives, GSAs, and climate groups have developed student groups within thousands of schools, some of which are implementing robust voter registration programs.

In all these cases, the framework provided by Making Young Voters can help us understand and evaluate how political culture for young people ties into the networks and institutions that surround them and how to create the climate in which democracy can thrive.

Terminology

Finally, as a step to promoting common understanding among social scientists, lawyers, educators, and activists working in the field of youth civic engagement, it is necessary to say a bit about terminology. The first bill introduced in the current US House of Representatives would make preregistration at 16 the law of the land. But until we have a federal voter registration age standard, we must all speak the same language to effectively communicate, advocate, and educate.

Specifically, there is no generally accepted taxonomy describing the range of laws that govern youth voter registration. The absence of generally accepted terminology leads to enormous confusion. For example, some groups advocating for preregistration as a pro-youth reform classify Texas as a “preregistration” state even though Texas law does not use that term, and Texas requires young people to wait until they are 17 years and 10 months to submit their voter registration forms. We should not use the same word to describe Texas and states with pro-youth voting laws that allow preregistration beginning at age 16.

Even the National Conference of State Legislatures has not been able to effectively classify the different laws. With respect to state laws allowing registration for those who will be 18 by the date of an upcoming election, NCSL basically throws up its hands, stating that these laws, “may mean that youth could register as soon as the previous general election is over, so that could be as early as 16 years of age. Reach out to your state election officials for details.” For most high school students, this does not qualify as help.

Making Young Voters includes a three-page footnote explaining the challenges in characterizing different state youth voter registration laws. Holbein and Hillygus settle on using the term “preregistration” to refer to states that allow 16- or 17-year-olds to register regardless of whether they turn 18 by the next election. This is not a fully satisfying cut, however, if the goal is to identify laws that give a reasonable amount of time to allow effective organizing and education about voting to take place in a high school setting. Laws that allow registration by the next “general election,” where that term refers to the federal general election, allow two full years to organize and to register before each general election, whereas laws allowing preregistration beginning at age 17 do not.

The problem created by the lack of an agreement about the meaning of the term “preregister” is compounded because some states allow young people to vote in primaries at age 17 if they will turn 18 by the general election. In these states, pre-18 registration is not merely preregistration, but actually confers the right to vote in that state’s primary before the student turns 18.

For the sake of future efforts, let’s define our terms to help students, educators, and young people better understand the opportunities and obstacles to youth organizing and youth voting. The explanation below is an effort to help achieve that goal.

Pre-18 Voter Registration or Pre-18 VR

Any law allowing a young person to submit a voter registration form before the age of 18 should be referred to as a pre-18 voter registration (or pre-18 VR) law.

Among pre-18 VR laws, a spectrum exists ranging from those that encourage youth voter registration (pro-youth-VR laws) to those that suppress it (anti-youth-VR laws). 

Pro-youth-VR laws

Pro-youth-VR laws include laws allowing preregistration beginning at age 16 and laws requiring every high school to implement a program encouraging voter registration.

Anti-youth-VR laws

Anti-youth-VR laws include laws allowing only a short window in which to register to vote before the age of 18, imposing burdensome or discriminatory ID requirements that are especially challenging for young people, or that impose burdensome requirements for holding citizen-led voter registration drives.

The laws determining the age at which a person may submit a voter registration form may be described as follows:

VR-at-16 laws

VR-at-16 laws allow young people to register when they turn 16.

VR-at-17 laws

VR-at-17 laws allow young people to register when they turn 17. 

VR-later-than-17 laws

VR-later-than-17 laws are laws that require young people to attain an age greater than 17, such as 17 and a half or 17 and 10 months before they can register to vote.

18-by-election laws 

18-by-election laws are laws that require a person to be 18 by a certain election.

Among 18-by-election laws, the most pro-youth-VR laws allow registration if one will be 18 by the next federal general election. In states with these laws, young people have a two-year window in which to register before the first general election in which they are able to vote. In some states, there is only a one-year window in which to register between November elections. In still other 18-by-election states, the window is shorter and turns on a variety of election dates that can include municipal elections and primary elections.

There is no great shortcut to referring to these laws, so I simply refer to them by what they require.

18 by November, even years (two year window)

These laws allow young people to submit registration forms if they will be 18 by the next federal general election (i.e., in November of even years).

18 by November, even and odd years (one-year window)

These laws allow young people to submit registration forms if they will be 18 by the next statewide election in a state that has statewide elections every year. These laws provide students turning 18 on or before the next November a one-year window in which to register.

18 by varying election dates (less-than-one-year window)

These laws require a person submitting a voter registration form to be 18 by a variety of different election dates, which can include primary elections, municipal elections, and special elections, as well as general elections. These laws are especially confusing because elections may occur at different times in different places, and creating clear and accurate education and organizing programs with so many different dates is challenging.

The most anti-youth-VR laws are the “18 by varying election date” laws and the “VR later than 17” laws. In both cases, students have less than a year to organize and register before turning 18. These laws are properly characterized as youth voter suppression laws because they significantly limit the opportunity for organizing and registering while a young person is still in high school. Limiting the opportunity for organizing within high schools also has a discriminatory effect on voter registration by people of color and low-income people, who have lower rates of post-secondary education. An appendix is provided below, characterizing each state’s law according to the above rubric.

Making Young Voters backs up what should be intuitive for us all: we need to create the conditions in which high schools can do more to help young people participate in democracy. School cultures that help to make young voters are those that support social and emotional learning, get their students registered to vote, and show them what is at stake and how they can make their voices heard.

If we care about democracy, it’s the least we can do.

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Laura W. Brill is the founder and director of The Civics Center, a nonprofit focused on high school voter registration. She is a former law clerk to Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a partner at Kendall Brill & Kely LLP. 

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Appendix:

The list below classifies states based on the age at which young people can first submit voter registration forms (as of January 2020):

VR at 16
California, Colorado, Delaware, DC, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington 
(15 states and the District of Columbia) 

VR at 17
Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey, West Virginia
(four states) 

18 by November, even years
Arizona, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming
(eight states) 

18 by November, even and odd years
Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Virginia 
(eight states) 

VR at 17 and a half
Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia
(four states)

18 by variable election dates (may depend on timing of primaries and special or local elections, contact local election officials for clarification)
Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin
(seven states)

VR at 90 days before age 18
Alaska
(one state) 

VR at 17 and 10 months
Texas
(one state)

VR at 18
Idaho
(one state) 

No need to register
North Dakota
(one state)