By Rob Thompson
A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down a momentous decision to overturn North Carolina’s controversial voter identification law. Included in the decision, and often lost in the subsequent analysis, is the reinstatement of voter preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, an effective and innovative policy for encouraging civic participation among young people.
We worry a lot about helping young people make the transition to adulthood successfully, and rightfully so. But we often neglect one of their most important responsibilities—voting. Our democracy relies on each new generation participating in the civic process and the first step is casting a vote. Preregistration is an easy, low-cost way to help young people start out on a path of civic engagement that will hopefully last their lifetime.
North Carolina began allowing the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds in 2010 following the passage of bipartisan legislation in 2009. The impact was profound and immediate. According to research from Democracy NC, 60,000 young voters were eligible to vote in the 2012 election who preregistered when they were 16 or 17 years old.
The law provided no political advantage for either Democrats or Republicans. Of the 60,000 youth who registered for the 2012 election, there was an even split between the two major political parties: 30 percent registered as Republicans, 30 percent as Democrats, 39 percent as unaffiliated, and one percent as Libertarian.
Similarly, an analysis by scholars at Duke University found that preregistration increases voter turnout and actually narrows the advantage Democrats have typically had among young voters.
In 2013, state legislators voted to eliminate pre-registration as part of a larger package of election reforms that included the requirement for showing photo identification to vote. The arguments for eliminating preregistration were largely nonexistent, and were weak when they were made (one state lawmaker cited confusion and administrative burden without providing any evidence).
With the law reinstated, young people will once again have the ability to get a head start on civic participation. Local boards of elections will again be required to implement annual voting drives at high school campuses across the state and students will be able to register to vote when they get their driver’s license, which is a natural expansion of the federal “motor voter” law that requires voter registration to be offered at DMV offices and other social service agencies. Perhaps voter preregistration will become as much a right of passage for young people as getting their driver’s license.
Unfortunately, Governor McCrory has stated his intention to appeal the recent court ruling. We hope the court system and future legislators will uphold the decision to reinstate preregistration and support the civic participation of our youth.
In the meantime, state election officials will need to come up with a plan for reinstating preregistration and work with local school districts and boards of elections to promote this opportunity to 16- and 17-year-olds.