New law could discourage participation by young voters
RALEIGH - Gov. Pat McCrory signed a sweeping elections overhaul bill on Aug.
12, and on Sept. 1 one of the first provisions of that new law will go into
effect. Beginning on that day, 16- and 17-year-olds will no longer be
allowed to pre-register to vote.
North Carolina implemented voter pre-registration in 2010 after being passed
by the General Assembly with broad, bipartisan support. Through the program,
16- and 17-year-olds could "pre-register" to vote, which didn't lower the
voting age but meant these young people would be automatically added to the
voter rolls when they turned 18.
Since many teens are going to the DMV to get a driver's license during this
time, it was convenient to offer them the opportunity to pre-register to
vote as well.
Students are also being taught civics in high school at this age, which
seemed like an appropriate time to translate the abstracts of lesson plans
into a real-world activity like pre-registering to vote. In the end, the
goal was to encourage teens to get involved in the voting process at an
early age and hopefully instill in them an interest and passion for civic
Unfortunately, voter pre-registration is eliminated by the new law and teens
will no longer be able to take advantage of this innovative program.
However, people who have pre-registered before September will still have
their pre-registration processed as in the past and will be added to the
voter rolls on their 18th birthday.
Since its implementation in 2010, the pre-registration program has been
successful at engaging young people in the political process. More than
150,000 future voters have taken advantage of pre-registration, with the
majority of those registering as independents instead of choosing to align
with any political party. If nothing else, these figures could portend
interesting changes to our two-party system in the future.
While voter participation among young people continues to lag well behind
older voters, pre-registration was a useful tool to encourage good voting
behavior even before these citizens were able to cast their first ballot. A
study of the 2012 election in North Carolina by Tufts University shows that
voters age 18-29 had a voter turnout rate of 57 percent, while voters 30 and
up had a turnout rate of 72 percent. That's a 15-percent gap and underscores
a problem that needs addressing.
How to better engage young people in our democracy is a much bigger question
with no easy solution, but it seems unwise to take away any programs that
play even a small role in encouraging greater participation.
The end of pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds is just the first step
in a long rollout of election-law changes that will shorten early voting and
repeal same-day registration in 2014, while culminating in 2016 with the
requirement that voters must show a photo ID at the polls in order to vote.
The elimination of pre-registration might not be the most consequential
provision of the new law, but we should all be focused on doing whatever we
can to improve voter participation in our state, especially among young
people, instead of removing tools to help us achieve that goal.
(Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education,
a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping
citizens fully participate in democracy.)