Matt Hecox is an OK Policy Research Fellow in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Oklahoma. Hecox has previously worked as a legislative assistant for the Oklahoma House of Representatives during the 2014 legislative session and in Norman Public Schools as an AVID tutor, athletics worker, and a special education teacher assistant.
Low youth voter registration and turnout for elections is problematic for the United States and Oklahoma. In the 2014 general election, only 42.2 percent of the United States citizens ages 18-24 were registered to vote, and only 17.1 percent actually voted. In Oklahoma registration and turnout by young voters was even worse. In 2014, only 33.8 percent of eligible Oklahomans age 18-24 were registered to vote, while a miniscule 11.8 percent voted. By comparison, 74.8 percent of Oklahomans age 65 and older were registered and 52.9 percent of them voted. While the largest voting group was age 45 to 64, the voters 65 and older outnumbered all voters younger than 45.
If young people are not participating in the voting process then it can be assumed that the problems and priorities of these Oklahomans will not be a major concern for our elected officials. While there’s no single fix for getting more young people to vote, we do have one good option for reducing the disparity — allowing pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds.
What is Pre-registration?
Pre-registration of youth voters allows citizens at the age of 16 or 17 to pre-register so they will be added to the voter registration rolls automatically on their 18th birthday. This policy has already been adopted in several states. Currently California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Utah allow citizens to pre-register to vote at the age of sixteen, while Maine, Nebraska, Oregon, and West Virginia allow citizens to pre-register to vote at the age of seventeen. Under Oklahoma law, citizens who turn 18 during the 60 days before an election can apply for voter registration between 25 and 60 days before the election.
Advantages of Pre-registration
A study of Florida and Hawaii, two of the first states that passed youth pre-registration laws, found that the policy was successful at increasing youth voter registration, and those who pre-registered turned out to vote at higher rates than those who registered at some later time. Another study on the effectiveness of pre-registration laws found that pre-registration increases voter turnout similarly for both young Republican and young Democrat voters. An advantage of pre-registration is that it allows for voter registration at already established points of contact for young people, such as during civics classes or when going to get a driver’s license.
The same study on Florida and Hawaii suggests that an important aspect of pre-registration is linking implementation of the law with high school government courses. The authors write, “The message of the importance of voting can be delivered in person by civics education rather than relying on young people to discover how to preregister on their own.” That helps to overcome any fear or confusion young people may feel trying to register for the first time without any guidance. Incorporating registration into civics education programs also makes the educational content concrete in a way that merely discussing elections and voting cannot do, which can have benefits both for educational outcomes and democratic participation. Students will come out of these courses with greater appreciation for the importance of voting throughout their lifetime, as well as better understanding of the process for showing up to vote on election day.
The bottom line
The very low voter registration and turnout among young Oklahomans is a serious problem. By not participating in the election process, young adults in Oklahoma do not have their views represented or heard by our state government. The problem will not be fixed overnight or by any single reform, but pre-registration has the potential to help. Oklahoma would be wise to follow the model of thirteen other states and the nation’s capital in adopting a pre-registration law.