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by Erin Ferns

With an estimated 23 million 18-29 year old citizens turning out to vote in the 2008 presidential election, it is easy to assume that young people today have overcome the stereotypical image of "apathetic youth." Yet, while the last few election cycles show an ever-growing interest in political engagement, young people are still underrepresented in the U.S. electorate—a problem that seems to have more to do with lack of access than lack of interest.

According to nonpartisan research group CIRCLE, an estimated 52 percent of 18-29 year olds voted in November 2008. While that shows a four percentage point increase in turnout since 2004, young people still turned out at least five percentage points below the national average. Furthermore, the youth electorate itself disproportionately represents educated, White citizens. While the youth electorate in 2006 was more diverse that the general electorate--a trend that estimates say continued in 2008—the highest registration and voting rates were among White youth. This gap reflects the existing disproportions on American college campuses, which are still the focus of most youth-focused voter registration programs.

The American youth’s under-representation in the general electorate, coupled with the disproportionate representation within the youth electorate itself, suggests a need to make voting more accessible for all of today’s youth, not just the college students. Unfortunately, constructive reforms that would improve the administration of elections have been overshadowed by the economic crises in all but a few state legislatures where lawmakers are quietly moving bills that would help engage the future of America. Here are a few of the youth-targeted voting reforms that are focused on engaging young people beyond the college campus.

Lowering the Voting Age

Youth voter advocates argue that citizens who become politically engaged at a young age become lifelong voters. With that, some states have considered expanding access to the democratic process by extending voting rights to citizens younger than 18.

The most common trend in youth-targeted legislation is to provide primary voting rights for certain 17-year-old citizens. This year, nine states introduced bills that would allow 17-year-olds to cast ballots in primaries if they will be 18 by the following general elections. At this time, only Rhode Island’s H 5005 appears to be gaining traction in the legislature. Currently, eight states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries. One additional state, Connecticut, is moving towards implementing last year’s amendment to the state constitution providing primary voting rights to citizens under age 18 through House Bill 6439.

This year, only two states, Arizona and Minnesota, looked beyond primary voting and proposed to extend full voting rights to 16-year-old citizens. In neither state do the bills appear viable. To date, no states permit 16-year-olds to vote in any election.

Civic Engagement

Several states proposed legislation to help engage young voters by instilling the value of democracy through education and incorporation in the democratic process, including voter education classes on high school campuses and student poll worker programs.

This year two states have proposed to incorporate education on the voting process in the high school curriculum. Kentucky House Bill 155 is active in the legislature, passing the House and appearing to rapidly gain approval from the Senate. It is currently in the Senate Rules committee.

One state, Texas is considering a way to include high school students in the democratic process even if the students are still too young to actually vote. The bill, H 252, which allows qualified students who are at least 16 years old to serve as poll workers, has recently advanced in the House

Voter Registration Opportunities

Perhaps taking note of the largely successful youth voter turnout rates in the 2008 primary and presidential elections, lawmakers in at least five states are considering measures to further increase youth voter participation by providing voter registration opportunities on high school campuses.

A noteworthy bill, New Jersey’s AB 2752, requires public and private schools to provide voter registration materials for eligible high school students prior to graduation. The bill was adopted by the assembly and is now in the Senate Elections committee.

Today, voter registration opportunities for young citizens is most commonly administered through preregistration with about half of the country already allowing 16 and 17 year-old citizens to preregister to vote. This year, just three more states are considering such measures. None of these bills have advanced since mid-February.

Recent trends in youth voter participation are enough to dismantle the apathy cliché, but not enough to dismiss constructive youth voting policies.  Still, the youth electorate continues to lag behind the general electorate, a problem that only perpetuates its representational bias. The real issue of voter access should be a focal point for lawmakers and advocates who want to encourage all young citizens, beyond the college campus, to let their voices be heard.

To monitor youth voting legislation, visit or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at]

Originally posted to Project Vote on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 06:30 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Great subject! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ms Citizen, Mayken

    I have long supported lowering the voting age. My own proposal is a graduated system that would allow youth to vote at 16 in city elections, at 17 for state races, and 18 for national office. I could also support simply lowering the age to 16 as Representative Kahn's bill here in Minnesota. I think the graduated system might be an easier sell.

    I do believe that young people need to take the lead on pushing for this. I am happy to help, but unless they demand the right, I doubt they will get it.

    I was part of the first cohort of 18 year old voters in 1972 following the ratifying of the 26th amendment. Becoming politically active at that age changed my life. I believe 16 year olds would welcome a chance to vote.

    I think it is a great idea for so many reasons. I'm eager to hear others' views.

    •  I'm a High School Principal... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kurt, Mayken

      I deal all day, everyday, with the best and the "worst", and I'm wondering if anyone can give me a fact-based reason for NOT lowering the voting age to 16?

      I imagine voter-protection laws would need to be enacted to prevent coercion, but beyond that?

      It just seems a no-brainer to me - hell, I'd support lowering the voting age to 10!  I've seen a lot more thoughtful discussion in a fifth-grade classroom than I've heard on talk radio!

      Naam!! Tunaweza!!

      by bogbud on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 08:26:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I registered on my birthday (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kurt, Mayken

    which was last month, so I'll get to vote in the school board elections and for the budget on April 21st.

    "It is better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees!" - Emiliano Zapata

    by Murdershewrote on Thu Mar 12, 2009 at 08:31:33 PM PDT

    •  Belated Happy Birthday (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And good on ya!
      I've told the story before but my dad used to take us kids with him when he voted and I've always had a reverence for the process. I too registered on my 18th birthday and voted in the next election.

  •  Lower voting age (0+ / 0-)

    I support it, but I didn't know the constitution allows it.

    •  There nothing in the constitution that forbids (0+ / 0-)

      States from lowering their voting age. The 26th extends voting rights to all at age 18 but doesn't fix that as the lowest age allowed, just the lowest age required. Prior to its passage, there was variability in who could and couldn't vote. Mostly it was over age 21 - I think only a few states allowed voting before that age - but since the draft was at age 18, the very valid argument was made that it wasn't right to ask our kids to die for this country when they couldn't vote for the leaders who decided to go to war.
      I think a federal statute might not be constitutional, but state by state changes would.

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