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Young people will vote if you get them registered | COMMENTARY

Official Ballot - Special Election April 28, 2020 for Representative in Congress - District 7
Official Ballot - Special Election April 28, 2020 for Representative in Congress - District 7 (Baltimore Sun staff/Baltimore Sun)

A plethora of lawmakers, commentators and activists have called for expanded vote-by-mail in this year’s primaries and the general election. But to vote by mail, one must first be registered to vote.

Most states and Washington offer online voter registration allowing new voters to register to vote on their phones or tablets in less than two minutes. In post-COVID-19 America, online voter registration presents an opportunity for organizations that previously planned grassroots voter registration drives in Maryland, Virginia and Washington to promote “online drives” in which organizers and volunteers text, email and post links to state registration portals.

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But most states that offer online voter registration, including Maryland, require prospective voters to have a driver’s license or identification card issued by a department of motor vehicles to submit an application online. These states generally verify a voter’s information with department of motor vehicle systems and link their voter record with a signature that can be compared to a voter’s ballot signature.

Millions of first-time voters, however, do not have a DMV-issued ID to be able to register to vote online. Maryland allows 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote, but data from the Federal Highway Administration show that fewer than half of 17-year-olds and only 62% of 18-year-olds have a driver’s license. Those numbers will decrease dramatically this year as most states, including Maryland, have temporarily closed their departments of motor vehicles. Around the country many DMVs that are open for limited services are closed for driving tests. And when DMVs begin to reopen, there will be even longer waits for new licenses and IDs as states mandate social distancing in government offices.

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Without a DMV-issued ID, prospective voters in Maryland must print out and mail their voter registration application. For some this is not a high barrier. For those without a printer, for those without a stamp, and for those young people who simply balk at jumping through hoops, registering by mail will depress youth voter registration and consequently, youth turnout.

We cannot lay the blame entirely at the feet of young people. John B. Holbein, author of “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Actionand assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, reports that, contrary to conventional wisdom, young people are not apathetic about government or their futures. (Examples abound, including the Parkland kids and climate strikers.) Professor Holbein explains that young people participate in our democracy at lower rates than older people because they fail to follow through on genuine intentions to vote. Why? Because we don’t teach them how.

A Pew Charitable Trust survey found that only 6% to 7% of us were asked to register to vote in school, and civics classes generally do not teach students how to register to vote. We don’t expect teens to fill out college applications without guidance. We don’t expect them to prep for the SAT without help. So why do we think they will know how to register to vote?

Maryland can make it easier for teens to register to vote this year by following the lead of states like Pennsylvania and California, both of which allow prospective voters to register online without a DMV-issued ID. Pennsylvania allows voters to upload a signature rather than using one on file with the DMV. A bill introduced this week in Congress adopts this same approach to expand access to online voter registration to citizens without a DMV-issued ID. Washington already assures such access through an app that users with or without a DMV-issued ID can use to register to vote. At a bare minimum, Maryland should allow new voters to email voter registration applications, which Delaware already permits.

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Allowing teens to register to vote online without a DMV-issued ID will increase youth voter turnout. In presidential election years, 18- to 24-year-olds who are registered to vote actually turn out to vote at rates approaching those of older voters. In Maryland an impressive 80% of 18 to 24-year-olds who were registered to vote in 2016 actually voted. The reason youth voter turnout is low is that many fewer young Americans are registered to vote than their older counterparts. Maryland can help close this registration gap by making it easier for teens to register to vote online.

Vicki Shapiro (vcs@thecivicscenter.org) is director of special initiatives at The Civics Center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes youth civics engagement by encouraging high school students to register or preregister to vote.

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