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02/21/2019 | Strengthening Voting Rights and Democracy

Expanding Voter Registration in High Schools: A Toolkit for Local Leaders

American democracy is at a crossroads. More than a decade of attacks on voting rights and democratic participation—from Shelby County v. Holder to restrictive state voter ID laws—have undermined core principles of representative democracy and have eroded the political participation of everyday people and the Rising American Electorate.

    When it comes to the ballot box, young voters in particular lag behind the rest of the electorate in terms of voter registration and turnout. In the 2016 general election, up to 45 percent of citizens aged 18 to 24 were not registered to vote and up to 57 percent of eligible voters in that age group did not vote. By contrast, up to 30 percent of the total population was not registered to vote and up to 39 percent of total eligible voters did not vote. Legal obstacles, voter confusion, and lack of engagement all diminish the participation rates of young voters. One survey found that many young voters face uncertainty about their voting rights, with 43 percent unaware of early voting laws and 42 percent unsure of photo ID requirements. This means that the voices of millennials—the country’s most racially diverse generation—and the generation coming up behind them, are significantly underrepresented in our democracy.

    “I’m 17 years old and I can’t vote, but I led one of the biggest voter registration campaigns in Arizona. I see the future of Arizona and of the United States as being led by youth and youth power. It’s necessary for people who are eligible to vote to do so because there are a lot of undocumented folks and people with felonies that are not able to. Having people in office that look like me, that sound like me, and that represent me would be such a step forward in our future and for our communities.”—Alexis Garcia, Civic Engagement Organizer, LUCHA

    The problem is not apathy or indifference among youth. For decades, young people across the country, particularly in Black and Brown communities, have been organizing around issues impacting their communities, including immigration policy, policing practices, access to education, and more. However, voters face myriad obstacles to the ballot box, many of which were erected to blunt the political power of young people and communities of color. For example, after millennials turned out in record numbers in 2008, some state legislatures responded with voter restrictions that disproportionately impacted young voters. Since 2010, 14 states have instituted more restrictive voter ID laws. Six states refuse to accept student ID,9 a policy which appears targeted to restrict young voters. While these restrictive laws create significant challenges, local jurisdictions have the power to help increase access to the ballot for young people. The expansion of voter registration programs in high schools is one concrete policy solution designed to ensure every eligible young person is registered to vote.