ON Nov. 6, 2012, something amazing happened. Rather than disappear, as many experts had prognosticated, young voters made a statement: We’re here to stay.
All across the country, young people came out to the polls in large numbers, defying the “2008 wave” theory that we had been a temporary bump in the electoral road. In fact, voters between 18 and 29 years old actually increased their share of the total electorate from the presidential election four years before.
That is very good news.
This year, the Washington state Legislature has an opportunity to strengthen civic engagement by passing House Bill 1279, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote when they sign up for their driver’s licenses.
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The No. 1 way Washingtonians register to vote is not out on the street with a volunteer-held clipboard, but when they update their driver’s licenses at the Department of Licensing.
It makes sense: You’re already sharing all the necessary information. All the clerk has to do is check a box on the form, and — let’s be honest — after a healthy wait for your turn in line, you might as well get more bang for your buck.
Voter registration at the Department of Licensing, better known as Motor Voter, is a perfect example of successful proactive civic engagement. It’s a simple process that costs next to nothing, and has a huge benefit for all Washingtonians.
With preregistration, nothing would change for the young people nervously taking their driver’s tests. (Good luck!) However, on the day they turn 18, the information they submitted at the Department of Licensing would go active, and they would instantly become registered voters.
Currently, people between the ages of 18 and 24 are 22 percent less likely to be registered to vote than their older peers. The 2010 U.S. census found that of the 513,000 eligible 18- to 24-year-old Washingtonians, just 261,000 were registered.
A simple, safe and cheap way of engaging these young people is building them into a system that already exists. Why not harness what we are already doing well?
In 2012 alone, more than 62,000 16- and 17-year-olds obtained their driver’s licenses or state ID cards from the Department of Licensing. With preregistration, those thousands of young people would be on their way to being registered voters, using the same convenient method that their older peers have embraced.
Already, eight other states and the District of Columbia have instituted preregistration.
Even better, the Legislature’s analysis of the proposed bill showed that preregistration carries little to no cost to either the state or the counties.
Studies have consistently shown that those laws have not only increased young voter registration overall, but the young people who preregister actually vote at a higher rate than their peers.
Moreover, voting is a learned habit. If you start voting as a young person, you are more likely to continue voting throughout your entire life.
The state House has passed HB 1279 with a bipartisan vote, and it’s now being considered by the Senate.
At the nonprofit Washington Bus, we believe that the more people who participate in our civic process, the better that process will be. And there is no better way to increase civic engagement than by encouraging voting.
Every eligible voter deserves the opportunity to cast a ballot, and as a state, we will be stronger if every eligible voter does just that.
By passing Motor Voter, Washington will welcome an entire rising generation into the civic process, and make our democracy more inclusive and vibrant, for decades to come.
A Seattle native and Garfield High School grad, Toby Crittenden is executive director of Washington Bus, a nonprofit that engages young people in politics. On Twitter @TobyCrittenden