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Some states are trying to boost youth voter registration. Here's what they're doing

Residents of Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood register to vote at a voter registration event on Sept. 29, 2021.
Mary Altaffer
Residents of Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood register to vote at a voter registration event on Sept. 29, 2021.

Young voters have historically had the lowest voter registration and participation rates of any age group in the United States.

But in recent years, more states have adopted policies aimed at increasing voter registration, including among U.S. citizens newly of voting age.

Minnesota's Democratic governor, Tim Walz, signed a voting bill into law about three months ago that would make it easier for young people to register to vote — even before they turn 18.

"Because the issues impacting them — from access to medical care, to the climate, to other things — makes them understand the ballot is the most powerful thing we have," he said. "Your voice is in your ballot. And if you don't have access to that or it's made more difficult, your voice is stifled."

The hurdles for young people to register to vote

Compared with others, people coming of voting age face significant barriers to registering to vote, says Charlotte Hill, director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley. Most young people aren't in the habit of interacting with the government by the time they are 18, and Hill notes young people move a lot.

"You can think back to being 18. You probably left your parents' house, you might have gone to college or started a new job somewhere," she said. "So even if you had been registered right when you turn 18 you have to register again just a handful of months later just to update that address."

Estrella Torres has spent a lot of time registering mostly young voters in Brownsville, Texas, for a group called Texas Rising. She says a lot of new voters are confused about what to do when it comes time to register to vote — which, Torres says, is why many of them don't register until years after they become eligible.

"Some do feel some sort of embarrassment like, 'Oh you know, I'm already like 20 or 21 and I've never done this before and I just felt like I didn't know where to turn to, like where the office is, or what forms I am supposed to do,' " she said.

A voter registration table is seen at a political event on Aug. 17, 2022, in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Eric Gay / AP
A voter registration table is seen at a political event on Aug. 17, 2022, in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Torres says she spends a lot of her time reassuring people that it's not their fault they are confused or overwhelmed with the process of registering to vote. She says states like Texas could make it easier. For example, Texas is one of only a handful of states without online voter registration.

"And the younger generation, you know, these old systems, they are just not satisfied with it anymore," Torres said. "Lawmakers need to get with the times and understand that you cannot keep an old system in place that is not making that demographic happy anymore."

Not everyone is on board with broad steps to try to increase youth voter registration. Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, for instance, wants to raise the voting age to 25, with earlier ballot access allowed for people who serve their communities or pass a civics test.

Automatic voter registration

But for those who do want to lower the barriers for youth voter registration, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the Newhouse director at CIRCLE at Tufts University, says some of the most helpful policies simplify the process on the voter's end.

"It's really important that the process of voting registration becomes almost invisible to young people," she said. "That's really how you get as many people as possible."

A good example of that is automatic voter registration, which is a policy currently in about half of states. Despite its name, AVR is not exactly automatic. How it typically works is when someone is getting a driver's license they are registered to vote using the information they gave the DMV.

David Becker, the founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, says this is one of the most efficient ways to get citizens coming of voting age onto the voter rolls.

"When so many of them are going into government agencies at or before the time they turn 18, and giving accurate information under penalty of perjury to a government agency, what states have found is that is the best time to get the vast majority of students registered," Becker said.

Some Republicans claim that automatic voter registration could make it easier for ineligible people to get on a state's voter rolls, which is one reason there has been pushback from some GOP lawmakers across the country.

But Becker points out that one of the most successful AVR programs recently implemented is in Georgia. Republicans in that state createda system several years ago that registers people to vote every time they interact with the DMV.

"And what they have found is, whereas in most states, young voters register at much lower rates than the rest of voters, they are starting to achieve parity," Becker said. "They are starting to get very close to young voters comprising the same share of the registered voter population as of the electorate. And that is a remarkable thing."

Pre-registration before age 18

And automatic voter registration is even more effective when paired with pre-registration, says Tufts' Kawashima-Ginsberg. She says allowing 16- or 17-year-olds to register automatically when they get their driver's license could make the process even easier.

"A vast majority of young people are still at home with their family or caregivers at that age," she said. "So, when we have a big burden of voter registration, at least you have a supporter who has probably already done this and knows where your papers are and is able to support young people to register to vote."

About 20 states in the U.S., including Minnesota, currently offer pre-registration to people under 18. Wendy Underhill, the director of elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said "that number has been going up slowly but surely over the last 20 years."

She says it's been a slow trend in part because these kinds of programs can be a big undertaking for officials.

"Each state that wants to consider this has to review, do they have the tech and the relationship with the DMV to be able to do this link?" Underhill said. "And do it in such a way that the voter doesn't mistakenly get any voter papers until they hit 18."

Besides pre-registration and automatic registration, experts say same-day registration during elections has also been proven to increase voter registration and participation rates among 18-year-olds.

Online voter registration

And experts say of course one of the most common ways to make sure young people register to vote is for a state to have online registration.

Few states, at this point, don't have online registration. Among those that don't, some explicitly require a so-called wet signature on a paper voter registration form.

Emily Eby French, a staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, says she and her colleagues hear a lot of frustration in Texas, where a law like this has been on the books for a while.

"I get to talk to college kids all the time in this job," she said. "They don't understand why we don't have voter registration online because everything else you can do is online now."

Vote.org is currentlysuing Texas over this law. Andrea Hailey, the group's CEO, says its mission is to make it easy for people to register to vote. The organization has a mobile app that on average takes people two minutes to register.

But wet signature laws require people to take extra steps, like printing a form and signing it and then mailing it, which she says takes many young people out of the electoral process.

"When things get more and more difficult for people, that's when you start to disincentivize and exhaust people," Hailey said. "And that is the point."

This is why Hill, of UC Berkeley, says states should be thinking about how their voter registration process could be a burden to voters who are coming of age.

She says young people often take the blame for their lower participation rate in American democracy.

"You can look at that as a personal failure, or you can step back and recognize that our system does not serve young people," Hill said. "It hasn't been built to serve voters who are new."

Hill says easing the burden of registering to vote for young people also has the added benefit of making it easier for all voters.

And registration rates are rising due to policies like automatic voter registration. Last year the share of U.S. citizens who were registered to vote was the highest in a midterm election in at least the past two decades.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.