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Smoothing the On-ramp to Democracy: Voter Registration as a Staple of American High Schools
4 million Americans turn 18 every year. Let's welcome and celebrate them.
It’s a new school year, which means I’m once again shouting for anyone who is listening: high school voter registration is the most underestimated, underfunded, and underutilized method we have for strengthening democracy in America today.
Reason # 1
Four million Americans turn 18 every year, and the vast majority can preregister to vote well before that birthday.
50% of US teens live in states where they can preregister to vote as soon as they turn 16. Another 20% can do so around 17. Even for the remaining 30%, the vast majority are old enough to register in their senior year of high school.
I am not just writing this because it’s interesting and surprising. The fact is that these laws won’t do us any good if no one knows about them and if no one is using them. We can bring these laws to life through policies and practices. At the top of my list is voter registration drives in high schools, run twice a year; led by students and supported by school faculty, staff, parents, and local communities.
Registered youth turn out at high rates.
You may be surprised to hear that, as we are constantly being told that young people turn out at low rates. Press reports suggest we should be impressed by youth turnout rates below 30%. But let’s not kid ourselves, a turnout rate under 30% is not good. A high school student would tell you it’s not even close to a passing grade. But it’s also not the end of the story!
The fact is that when young people are registered they turn out at high rates, especially in Presidential elections, midterms, and other races where they know what is at stake. As it relates to the youngest voters, the biggest problem is that most high schools are doing nothing or next to nothing to help them register and vote.
A presidential race is coming up, so if you don’t believe me that registered youth turn out at high rates, let’s start there: In 2020, according to the Census Bureau, 86% of registered youth (18-24) turned out. This chart shows how that broke down among people in different birth years, with registered 18- and 19-year-olds turning out at rates just as high as those ages 20-24.
2020 was an aberration in a lot of ways of course, but not in the fact that a high percentage of registered youth voted.
In every presidential election going back to 2004, more than 75% of registered youth (18-24) turned out.
Here’s a chart to illustrate the point.
Curious about the midterms? In 2018, according to the Census Bureau, roughly 66% of registered youth (18-24) voted. In 2022, roughly 56% of registered youth turned out. Interestingly, in many states, especially those with hotly contested Senate races or Gubernatorial elections, the rates were much higher. See, e.g., Georgia (69%); Michigan (70%) Pennsylvania (72%); Wisconsin (84%).
The below illustration shows the impact these young people can have in some of the states where youth are likely to have great political influence in 2024.
So the next time someone tells you that young people don’t turn out, please stop them and help them understand:
Turnout is a function of two separate processes. Registration and casting a ballot. If we forget the first, we’re not going to be able to meaningfully address the latter.
Delaying means millions of votes left on the table.
The final excuse people often give for ignoring high school voter registration is that it’s not necessary because young people will in any event register to vote when they turn 18.
Our research shows it’s not the case. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s happening.
In 2022, fewer than half of 18- to 24-year-old citizens were registered to vote. Today, in big, diverse cities such as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and many others, only about one-third or fewer of 18-year-olds are registered.
There are many reasons for low youth registration. They are not being asked to register at school or in their communities. They are not being given the tools, including meaningful civics education, to register or to understand why registration and voting are important. Their teachers haven’t received training or materials, and their schools don’t have any plans to incorporate it. Some states have passed laws to obstruct young people’s ability to register and to vote. We call this Youth Voter Suppression.
We know that unless something changes, millions of young people will be disenfranchised in 2024. This next slide explains how many more voters we would have if the youngest voters were registered at the same rates as older adults.
Lastly, young people are not a monolith. College voter registration programs, which are greatly needed, are not designed to reach high school students, who are involved in different educational organizations and are at a different time of life.
Importantly, if we rely only on outreach to college campuses, we’re missing the 40% of youth who do not go on to college. Once those Americans graduate and join the workforce, they become harder to find and thus more difficult and expensive to register.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense: a healthy democracy means full participation, which means we must welcome our youngest members and celebrate their newly acquired status as voters. We need our representatives to consider their needs and opinions just as critically as they do any other age group’s. And if high school is the place where we prepare students for adulthood, then it should be the place where we tell young people how vital their voices are to America’s government and society.
Registration is an administrative hurdle to that ideal. Bring it into high schools, make it as routine and familiar an activity as any other, and it will soon become a no-brainer. A robust American democracy demands a smooth on-ramp and a yearly influx of 4 million new voters.