February 17, 2020

Voter Pre-Registration

20M108

Standing Committee on Election Law
Civil Rights and Social Justice Section
Standing Committee on Public Education
State and Local Government Law Section
Law Student Division

Report to the House of Delegates

Resolution

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to enact legislation that provides, at a minimum, for eligible youth between the ages of 16 and 18 to preregister to vote; and

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to automatically add individuals who have preregistered to vote to the voter roll upon reaching their 18th birthday, or upon reaching the legal voting age in the jurisdiction, if earlier; and

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges high schools and colleges to provide every eligible student a meaningful opportunity to apply to register to vote, and to vote, when they are eligible; and

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges state and local educational institutions to adopt robust civic education programs to promote literacy in the institutions of American government, the methods of active civic participation in elections and governance, and a solid foundational understanding of the role and crucial importance of the rule of law; and

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to enact legislation, promulgate regulations, and appropriate sufficient funds to implement voter preregistration and civics education as called for by this resolution.

Report

Pre-registration is an election procedure that allows eligible individuals younger than 18 years of age to register to vote, so that they are eligible to cast a ballot when they reach legal voting age for all state and federal elections. Typically, a pre-registrant will fill out an application and be added to the voter registration list with a “pending” or “preregistration” status. Upon turning 18, or the legal voting age, the individual is automatically added to the voter registration list and able to cast a ballot. The 18-29 age bracket is consistently under-represented in both registration and turnout rates, and this procedure is designed to increase voter participation by young people.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), currently at least 14 states (California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington) and the District of Columbia permit pre-registration beginning at 16 years old; 4 states (Maine, Nevada, New Jersey and West Virginia) permit pre-registration beginning at 17 years old. Five states set another age at which an individual may pre-register: (a) Alaska permits those under 18 to register anytime within 90 days before their 18th birthday; (b) Georgia, Iowa and Missouri permit registration of those who are 17.5 (if they will turn 18 before the next election); and (d) Texas permits a person who is 17 years and 10 months of age to register. Twenty-six states do not specifically address an age for registration and instead allow individuals to register if they will turn 18 by the next election.

In addition to urging the adoption of pre-registration laws, this resolution would also require schools to provide students meaningful opportunities to register and vote. For example, schools could provide voter registration tables outside the auditorium following an assembly program about the right to vote. Pending federal legislation (H.R. 1637) goes further and designates public high schools as voter registration agencies (just as motor vehicle agencies presently are, and public libraries are in some states) under the National Voter Registration Act; that bill also requires high schools to conduct their own voter registration drives. When students are eligible to vote, as many high school seniors are, the schools must be flexible enough to give the students opportunities to vote, even during school hours if absolutely necessary.

States such as California provide that robust programs to facilitate pre-registration of students and youth ages 16-18 must (a) require every high school, community college, and state university to make available voter registration forms; and (b) provide notices describing pre-registration eligibility requirements and informing each student that he or she may return the completed form in person or by mail to the applicable election official, or where available, to register using the state’s automated voter registration system specifically tailored for youth pre-registration purposes.

Studies have shown that young people who have preregistered are more likely to vote and vote regularly. Preregistration engenders anticipation and enthusiasm about voting, which leads to a lifelong sense of responsibility to vote. Inextricably intertwined with the duty to vote is the duty to be informed. This resolution couples preregistration with civic education.

Voting in our democratic system is a principal franchise and responsibility of citizenship. Leading jurists and lawyers recognize that civic education is a prerequisite for meaningful civic participation. Yet, as distinguished former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics Project notes, “for decades, civic education had largely disappeared from school curricula and the repercussions are undeniable.

Some states have adopted legislation to promote civic education by connecting voter pre-registration programs to secondary and college civic education programs, as well as authorizing students and youth to serve as poll workers at the polls to enhance their understanding of the electoral process.

This resolution urges governments to promote such programs for the pre-registration of eligible youth at age 16 and combine this effort with the adoption of robust civic education programs in the schools. Many such programs are already available through the network of civic education programs in the United States, such as those conducted by organizations such as IFES (the International Foundation for Electoral Systems), by the Center for Civics Education, through its Representative Democracy in America Project, by the iCivics Program supported by former Associate Justice of the United States Sandra Day O’Connor, and by the California Judicial Council’s Civics Education Project sponsored by California Chief Justice Tami Cantil-Sakayue. These programs are also furthered by the federal appellate courts for the Second, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals, which offer educational programming, teacher training, and exhibits about the role of the judiciary and the rule of law. The ABA’s Division of Public Education currently participates with or supports some of the federal circuits’ educational programs.

Finally, this resolution urges all jurisdictions to appropriate the necessary funds to implement the preregistration and civic education programs described here. The budget for such programs would undoubtedly be modest. Expenditures might include publication of educational materials, ¬staff time to assist with the registration process (if not provided by volunteers or parents), and costs incident to training staff or volunteers in state and local voting laws. Of course, such local funds could be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Education, as provided in H.R. 1637, but the moneys must come from somewhere.

Voter preregistration and civic education have been widely and successfully employed throughout the country, usually with bipartisan support. They are small, practical steps we can take toward increasing voter participation and promoting an informed electorate.

Respectfully submitted,


Estelle H. Rogers
Chair, Standing Committee on Election Law
February 2020
 

    Video: Presenting the Resolution to the House of Delegates at the 2020 ABA Midyear Meeting (February 17, 2020)

    Speaker: Estelle H. Rogers