By LAURA BRILL | THE CIVICS CENTER
There it was again, this time in the Washington Post, a throw-away line about the supposed “apathy” of young voters. It was, as if to say, if there’s one thing we can all agree upon it is that young people don’t care.
This drives me crazy.
The reality (based on US Census data) is that in every presidential election going back to 2004, more than 75% of registered youth turned out. Yet, as of the 2022 midterms, only 30.6% of 18-year-olds were registered.
The problem is not apathy, but the lack of investment in welcoming young people into our democracy, helping them register, teaching them how public issues connect with their lives, and showing why their votes matter. The logical place for this to happen is in high school, but more often than not, high schools do nothing or next to nothing to help their students register.
I’m often asked why this is the case. Where to begin? At the federal level, and in most states, laws don’t require it. Even where requirements exist, they are often ignored. Where they are ignored, enforcement is often absent.
Even for those who want to make a change, resources, training, planning, and practice are all lacking. For example, most educators receive no training in their state’s laws regarding voter registration or how to involve their students in high school voter registration drives. Many students and parents do not know that high school voter registration is even possible and that they could take on the effort themselves or demand that their schools do so.
It’s a big problem. Four million young people graduate from high school every year, and with only 30% of 18-year-olds registered to vote in the midterms, that boils down to 2.8 million missing voters, just for one year of high school graduates. In the overwhelming majority of school districts we have studied, fewer than 40% of 18-year-olds are registered to vote.
If teens understood fully how their voting rights have been ignored or suppressed, they’d be flabbergasted, furious, and fired up to make a change.
How did we end up here?
So much more is possible:
There could be a federal law requiring states to allow young people to preregister to vote beginning at age 16.
There could be a federal law requiring states to accept college and high school IDs as valid IDs for purposes of their voter ID laws.
There could be a federal law requiring states to designate public high schools as voter registration agencies, with the obligation to assist their students in registering to vote.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (Motor Voter), which imposes federal requirements relating to voter registration, leaves it to the discretion of states whether to designate public schools as voter registration agencies or not. Most states have not done so.
An earlier version of the NVRA would have required covered states to designate public schools as voter registration agencies. That bill passed in the House in 1990, but died in the Senate. The concept has remained more or less dormant ever since.
The Youth Voting Rights Act, which was introduced in Congress for the first time in 2021 and reintroduced in 2023, would for the first time, if enacted, provide meaningful federal protection for youth voting rights. The Freedom to Vote Act would, if enacted, also include meaningful protections for youth voting rights.
Neither bill passed in the last session of Congress, however, and with a divided Congress and significant numbers of Members opposed to enhancing protections for voting rights, neither is likely to pass in this session.
In our federal system, however, when one door closes, others usually remain open. Change is still possible. States can enact their own youth voting rights acts. In 2023 alone, three additional states (Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan) enacted laws allowing preregistration at age 16, and a similar measure is pending in Pennsylvania. Today, 50% of teens live in states that allow preregisration at age 16.
School districts also do not require federal law to make sure their students are prepared to participate in elections. They can include nonpartisan voter registration efforts and robust civics education as part of their curriculum. They can embed registration efforts into their regular calendar of extracurricular activities. Students can provide leadership, like they do in student newspapers, student government, and sports.
In the face of inertia among elected leaders – or should we call it apathy? – students and parents can take matters into their own hands. They can bring change to their school communities through their own outreach and insistence.
Success in bringing voter registration to every high school in America may not happen all at once, and it may not happen today or tomorrow. But it will happen. It’s already begun.
Run A Drive
If you are a student or educator, sign up to attend a Run A Drive workshop to learn everything they need to know about how to run a high school voter registration drive. If you know high school students and educators, encourage them to sign up. Here’s a link to our website to get started.
Tell a Friend
Make sure all the teens in your life register or preregister as soon as they are old enough and ask your friends and family to do the same. Here’s a link to our portal to get started.
Contact Elected Officials
Whether or not the votes exist today to pass legislation to encourage high school voter registration, Congress needs to hear from you. We have online actions to urge your representatives to support the Youth Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
Join Our Letter-Writing Campaign
Between now and Election Day 2024, our volunteers will be reaching out to households with teens to raise awareness about preregistration and to spark kitchen-table conversations to encourage everyone to register as soon as they are old enough. Sign up to send letters here.
Donate to support our work
Every day we are working to bring voter registration to every high school in America. Your support keeps us going.
What’s the take away? Stop blaming kids. We as a country have not created the legal policies or social and cultural practices to welcome the youngest voters into our democracy.
Our research and our work show that when given the opportunity and support, young people are eager to participate and to bring their values to the public sphere. It’s up to all of us to help them do it.ABOUT AUTHOR: Laura W. Brill is founder and ceo of The Civics Center. She is an attorney, former law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a mother of two young adults. An award-winning advocate with more than two decades of experience working on complex legal issues and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community and for equal voting rights, she launched The Civics Center in 2018 to stop youth voter suppression and tackle the decades-old problem of low youth turnout.