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By Henry Kraemer, Liz Kennedy, Maggie Thompson, Danielle Root, and Kyle Epstein
July 19, 2017

Millennials today number more than 83 million individuals and account for nearly one-third of both the labor force and the eligible voting population. Millennials now surpass Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Beyond sheer numbers, Millennials also represent the most diverse generation in American history; an unprecedented 44 percent of Millennials identify as a person of color. By 2020, Millennials are expected to make up 40 percent of the eligible voting population. Millennials are steering our country toward a future that is even richer and more multicultural than our past. This changing American electorate, however, has yet to fully realize its political voice.

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The Millennial generation faces a unique set of structural economic challenges with which their predecessors did not have to contend. These challenges—including the $1.3 trillion student debt crisis, a negative savings rate, and a youth unemployment rate that is twice the rate for all workers—forestall many young Americans’ path toward economic stability. As Millennials pursue higher education, launch careers, and delve into the world of parenting and caregiving, these barriers to socioeconomic stability become more pronounced.

It is crucial that young people have a voice in government and the chance to
affect public choices to advance their interests. Yet the current paradigm for voter registration leaves millions of Millennials outside of the political system. This is essential context for policymakers seeking to engage young people in elections. Young people are far from uninterested in the political process. They are leading social movements, volunteering in their communities, and civically engaged at all-time high rates. Unfortunately, many young people are disproportionately blocked from participating in our elections due to an aging voter registration system that punishes citizens who move frequently or are less familiar with the arcane quirks of outdated voting rules. These structural disadvantages have consequences: According to a post-election survey, nearly one in four Millennials had to pull out a provisional ballot in order to vote in the 2016 presidential election due to questions over eligibility. In comparison, only 6 percent of Baby Boomers and 2 percent of the Greatest Generation—those who came of age during the Great Depression—had to vote provisionally. A more up-to-date system will lead to greater participation in civic life among Millennials and a government that is more representative and better suited to solving the problems facing the Millennial generation. Voter registration has been associated with high voter turnout rates. In 2016, 79 percent of registered 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote in the general election, compared to 46 percent of all voting-age citizens younger than age 30.

Automatic voter registration (AVR) is a policy tool that addresses youth voter registration problems and helps ensure that young people—who are the future of the country—can have their voices heard on the issues that affect their lives. Put simply, AVR removes much of the bureaucratic red tape that keeps young people from voting. For example, with AVR, registration information can be automatically updated each time a voter moves. It takes the guesswork out of knowing where and how to register because public agencies automatically register eligible citizens to vote unless they decline.

Oregon’s new statewide AVR system is the first in the nation. Last year, with AVR in place, Oregon turned out the highest percentage of voting-age citizens in the state’s history. In all, Oregon’s AVR system registered 226,094 Oregon residents to vote in the November 2016 election. Of those new registrants, more than 98,000 actually cast a ballot in the November elections. Additionally, 264,551 voters received address updates through the AVR system, ensuring Oregon’s all-mail ballots reached them at their current residences. Oregon’s system was particularly successful with young voters. Between the 2012 and 2016 general elections, the number of registered Oregon voters age 18 to 29 increased by more than 100,000. During the same period, the eligible- voter population of that cohort grew by just more than 12,000 people. This massive growth in registration of Oregon youth—along with the accompanying increase in address updates—contributed to Oregon reaching 50 percent turn-out for all eligible voters younger than age 30 in the 2016 general election. This is a significant increase compared to Oregon’s 43 percent voting-eligible youth turnout rate in the 2012 presidential election. New analysis by the Center for American Progress and nationally recognized voting experts found that more than 40 percent of Oregon’s AVR registrants and 37 percent of AVR voters were younger than 30 years old. This is striking given that 18- to 29-year-olds make up only 20 percent of Oregon’s overall eligible voter population.

A 7-percentage point increase in turnout is an unusually high boost following the implementation of a single voting reform. This suggests a transformational effect on youth turnout at least in part from the AVR program. At the same time, analysis conducted by BlueLabs found that Oregon’s AVR system likely contributed to 55 percent of eligible but previously unregistered people of color being added to the rolls, giving Oregon the largest percentage increase in registration for people of color in the nation—10 percentage points higher than the next highest state.

By implementing AVR systems in states across the country, the political power of the Millennial generation can be realized.

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