Over the last 40 years, America’s youngest voters—those aged 18 to 24—have registered to vote and voted at lower rates than older voting-eligible citizens. Since 1980, when 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the presidential election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the voting rate among this segment of the voting population in presidential elections has fluctuated between 30 and 50 percent, with a modern high of 49 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voting in 2008. Meanwhile, the turnout rates of voters aged 45 to 64 years old have been at least 20 percent higher in each of those same elections, and the turnout rates of voters over the age of 65 have been at least 25 percent higher in every election except 2008[i].
The consistency of this voting data among 18- to 24-year-olds—beginning with Baby Boomers in 1980 and continuing through Generation X and Millennials in later elections—suggests that systemic issues, rather than generational issues, are limiting young people’s civic participation.
In fact, there are several key reasons why young people tend to register and vote at lower rates than older citizens, including:
- Many young people are learning how to register to vote and vote during one of the most transient times of their lives.
- Young people face targeted voter suppression that negatively impacts their ability to register and vote.
- Young people are less likely to be contacted by campaigns or other “traditional” organizing entities and are less likely to believe that their voices and policy priorities are reflected in a candidate’s platform.
In this report, we look towards four cities in Maryland that are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach to tackling the first two barriers identified above. For more information about the third barrier, see our issue brief[ii] about the potential impact of young voters in the 2020 election and the steps that campaigns can take to engage and motivate young potential voters.
This report specifically looks at the potential benefits of jurisdictions implementing a suite of policies aimed at increasing access to voting and early experience with voting. This suite of policies includes preregistration, automatic voter registration, and lowering the voting age to 16 for local municipal elections. This brief also identifies promising practices for engaging high school students in the electoral process and maximizing impact in cities that implement these policies.
Generation Progress partnered with Generation Citizen’s Vote16USA campaign to assist 16- and 17-year-olds in Maryland to register their peers to vote and worked directly with high school students in Maryland to better understand the most effective ways to engage young people in the voting process.
Increasing Voter Registration Access
The voter registration process varies from state to state, but it has traditionally been a barrier to young people, especially first-time voters, trying to cast a ballot[iii]. There are numerous reasons why the registration process can present challenges for younger Americans. For example:
- Time. The most basic issue that young people may be up against is time. For young people who are born in the late summer or fall, they may only have a couple of weeks—or even days—to register to vote before the registration deadline. Some young people may be born after the registration deadline but before the election. These rules vary greatly by state and result in young people facing even more difficulty in registering for their first election.[iv]
- Life transitions. For many young people, the late teenage years and early twenties are a time of major life transitions. Major life events such as graduating from high school, moving out of parents’ or guardians’ homes, and enrolling in college or starting full-time jobs can become consuming and make registration deadlines easy to miss.
- Frequent moves. Related to life transitions discussed above, many young people move annually or even more often during this period of their lives. Eighteen to 24-year-olds are less likely to own homes and more likely to live with roommates, and they are more likely to move at the conclusion of their lease.[v] Young people who are in college may transition from dorm to dorm between academic years, or from dorms to private housing, and young people who move to different states have to learn new voter registration rules. Each new move requires a young person to update their voter registration information.
- Bureaucracy. Registering to vote can feel daunting or overly bureaucratic for someone who has never done it before. Only 50 percent of young people have accurate information about online voter registration, and many young people may not know where to get paper voter registration forms.[vi]
Generations of young voters have needed electoral system fixes, but the United States has been slow to implement badly needed structural changes to address the long-existing barriers that young people face as new or first-time voters.
The good news is that some states across the country have adopted progressive pro-voter reforms that help break down the barriers to voter registration for young people. A previous report written by Generation Progress, “Ten Ways Congress Can Act For Young People,” identified preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, automatic voter registration (AVR), and same-day registration as among the best pro-voter reforms for young people—with preregistration and AVR being the most effective ways to engage those under 18.[vii] Reforms like these not only make it easier for young people to register to vote, but also increase the likelihood they will vote once registered.
Preregistration policies allow eligible 16- and 17-year-old citizens to submit the information required to register to vote before their eighteenth birthday. Once they turn 18, their status in the system changes from pending to activated.[viii] Fifteen states—California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington—and Washington, D.C. allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.[ix]
Preregistration addresses several of the voter registration challenges identified above. Specifically, 16- and 17-year-olds who preregister to vote automatically become eligible voters when they turn 18, eliminating the timing issue of when a young person’s birthday is relative to the registration deadline. In addition, by preregistering at 16- or 17-years-old, young people do not have to remember registration deadlines while also balancing other new adulthood responsibilities that may be present during a period of major life transitions.
Another benefit of preregistration is that young people are brought into the world of elections and civic engagement early, which can serve to both elucidate the often intimidating and confusing voter registration process as well as pique an interest in participating in democracy. Preregistration also ensures that young people are added to the voter file as soon as possible, making it more likely that they will be contacted directly by candidates and campaigns during the campaign cycle.[x]
Automatic Voter Registration
Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) uses information that a state already has access to in order to register eligible Americans to vote.[xi] The Department of Motor Vehicles is one of the most widely used sources of the personal information that is necessary to register an individual to vote, and some states are expanding their systems to also utilize public assistance services or other state-funded programs.
Benefits of AVR include accurate voter rosters with up-to-date addresses of voters, as well as automatic updates to a voter’s registration information if they move and update their driver’s license. Seventeen states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia—and Washington, D.C. have already adopted AVR policies.[xiii]
Researchers project that “if every state implemented AVR, more than 22 million registered voters could be added to state voter rolls in just the first year. All else being equal, if every state adopted the Oregon model of AVR, within just the first year of implementation, one could expect more than 7.9 million new voters nationwide—including 3.2 million previously disengaged voters.”[xiv] Clearly, implementing these pro-voter reforms would have a significant impact on U.S. elections and help improve the participation rates in our democracy.[xv]
Policies Work Best When Implemented Together
AVR and preregistration policies are most effective when they are implemented together and have been shown to increase both youth voter registration and youth voter turnout. In the seven states (and Washington, D.C.) that have implemented both preregistration and AVR policies, an eligible 16-year-old who passes their driving test and gets a driver’s license is automatically preregistered to vote using the information from their license application. This eliminates the confusion of state-specific voter registration deadlines and ensures the young person is registered well before their eighteenth birthday. It also eliminates the bureaucratic process of finding and completing a separate voter registration form.
And these policies have real results: in one case study on California’s joint preregistration and AVR policy, nearly two-thirds of those preregistered as a result of this policy who then reached voting age, turned out to vote in the 2018 midterm.[xvi]
Lowering the Voter Age for Local Elections
Preregistration and automatic voter registration are two policies that have been shown to increase voter registration among young people. But some localities are going further and lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections so that young people get practical and meaningful voting experience before they are old enough to vote in federal elections.
Like all things, making voting a long-term habit takes practice. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections provides them with the opportunity to put what they’re learning in their high school government classes and talking about with their parents, caregivers, and teachers into practice. When implemented in conjunction with automatic preregistration, lowering the voting age for municipal elections can turn a conceptual experience—registering to vote in a federal election that may be up to two years away—into a concrete exercise.
In addition, giving 16- or 17-years-old the opportunity to vote sends the message that their opinions and input matter to their communities, which may empower them into more consistent civic participation after they reach adulthood. Once young people graduate or leave high school—often around the age of 18—it becomes more difficult to reach them with voter registration and get out the vote efforts. Currently, significant time and money is invested in registering and mobilizing college students to vote in federal elections, however, only about 50 percent of high school students matriculate to college and not all of them attend four-year campus-based colleges. Thus, while important, those efforts do not reach a significant portion of 18- to 24-year-old potential voters. Lowering the voting age to 16 for municipal elections allows similar voter registration and mobilization efforts to begin earlier, and therefore reach young people whether they matriculate to college or not.
Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in their municipal elections also increases the likelihood of these young people becoming lifelong voters. The earlier young people can understand and participate in the electoral process, the less confusing and intimidating voting becomes.
Finally, 16- and 17-year-olds are directly affected by the policies their local elected officials enact. Many high school students start their first jobs, get their driver’s licenses, and become increasingly independent members of society during those formative years. These students deserve a chance to use their voices and vote for the policies and candidates that directly affect their everyday lives.
Maryland as a Leader in Lowering the Voting Age for Municipal Elections
According to a report from Vote16USA, several states have attempted to lower the voting age in municipal elections, including California, Colorado, Vermont, Oregon, and D.C. So far, however, no new bills have been signed into law. Individual cities have worked on the issue as well—one successful effort in Berkeley, CA resulted in the city lowering the voting age to 16 for school board elections. The state of Maryland has also been a leader in the effort to lower the voting age across the country[xvii] and is currently the only state in which certain cities allow voters under 18 to participate in municipal elections.[xviii] Four cities in the state currently allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections: Greenbelt, Takoma Park, Riverdale Park, and Hyattsville.
- Takoma Park was the first city in Maryland to lower its voting age.[xix] Its city council passed the ordinance to lower the voting age in 2013.[xx] The city’s next municipal election will be held on November 3, 2020.[xxi]
- Hyattsville was the second Maryland city to lower its voting age in January 2015, and 16- and 17-year-olds have been able to participate in the last three municipal elections.
- Greenbelt lowered its voting age in 2018, after Hyattsville’s victory increased interest in other cities in Maryland. It’s first municipal election with 16- and 17-year-olds participating was on November 5, 2019.[xxii]
- Riverdale Park was the fourth city to lower the voting age for its municipal elections, which it did in May 2018. Riverdale Park held their first elections in which 16- and 17-year-olds could participate in May 2019.[xxiii]
As of July 2019, Maryland added automatic voter registration to its policy suite of pro-voter reforms. This means that 16- and 17-year-olds will now be automatically preregistered to vote in federal elections when getting a driver’s license or state identification card, and they will also be automatically registered to vote in municipal elections in Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Greenbelt, and Riverside Park.
At the time of this report, it is still too soon to determine the impact of this policy change, however, the combination of preregistration, automatic voter registration, and lowering the voting age for municipal elections provides an exciting and comprehensive approach to engaging young people in the democratic process, and it should be studied over the next two election cycles so that successes can be implemented in other jurisdictions.
Promising Practices and Ideas When Lowering the Voting Age for Municipal Elections
Promising practices for engaging and supporting high school students in the electoral process early include peer-to-peer voter registration, early school-based voter education, and uplifting young voices/stories on social and earned media platforms. High school administrators, local boards of elections, and grassroots voter registration organizations can all play an instrumental role in engaging potential young voters to maximize their first voting experience.
Peer-to-peer registration can be done over several types of texting applications, such as Hustle, or can be done in-person.[xxiv] Peer-to-peer voter registration helped young people register to vote for the 2018 midterms with support from many grassroots and student-led organizations.[xxv] High school voter registration drives are another great way to mobilize young leaders to inspire their peers to register and preregister to vote. According to the League of Women Voters, registration events held in the late winter and early spring register around three times as many voters than those held in the fall.[xxvi] A Generation Progress partner, Montgomery County Students for Change, held a series of high school voter registration drives in January and February of 2020 across 25 schools in the district. Almost 300 students were registered to vote as a result of these drives, and nearly 400 signed up to serve as election workers. These efforts were planned to continue into March 2020, however, they were cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to the organizing strategies identified above, local jurisdictions should consider holding school board or mayoral debates (depending on the elections that 16- and 17-year-olds are eligible to vote in) at large high schools using a “school assembly” format for juniors and seniors. Doing so could serve the dual purpose of putting candidates for local office in front of hundreds of eligible voters and engaging the jurisdiction’s youngest voters in a meaningful conversation about policies and the power of local elected office.
In local elections, a few hundred voters can have a significant and decisive impact on the outcome. For example, current Greenbelt mayor, 27-year-old Colin Byrd, defeated the three-term incumbent mayor Everett V. Jordan by just 95 votes in November 2019.[xxvii] Thus, by holding candidate debates at a large local high school during the school day, candidates can get their messages out to voters, and young people have the opportunity to tangibly learn the potential power of their vote.
[i] The United States Census Bureau, “Historical Reported Voting Rates: Table A-1. Reported Voting and Registration by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age Groups: November 1964 to 2018,” October 7, 2019, available at https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/voting-historical-time-series.html.
[iii] Henry Kraemer, Liz Kennedy, Maggie Thompson, Danielle Root, and Kyle Epstein, “Millennial Voters Win With Automatic Voter Registration,” Generation Progress and the Center for American Progress, July 2019, available at https://genprogress.org/millennial-voters-win-automatic-voter-registration/.
[iv] USA.gov, “Voter Registration Age Requirements by State,” available at https://www.usa.gov/voter-registration-age-requirements.
[v] U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey/Housing Vacancy Survey, March 10, 2020; recession data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, available at https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/data/charts/fig07.pdf.
[vi] CIRCLE, “Poll: Young People Believe They Can Lead Change in Unprecedented Election Cycle,” June 30, 2020, available at https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle.
[vii] Anisha Singh and Kiara Richardson, “Ten Ways Congress Can Act For Young People,” Generation Progress, February 2019, available at https://genprogress.org/report-ten-ways-the-new-congress-can-act-for-young-people/.
[viii] Danielle Root and Liz Kennedy, “Increasing Voter Participation in America: Policies to Drive Participation and Make Voting More Convenient“ (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2018/07/11/453319/increasing-voter-participationamerica/.
[ix] National Conference for State Legislature, “Pre-registration for Young Voters,” February 12, 2019, available at https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/preregistration-for-young-voters.aspx#Additional Resources.
[x] Anisha Singh, Brittney Souza, and Danielle Root, “Pro-Voter Reforms Were Key to Young Americans Voting in the 2018 Elections,” February 2019, available at https://cdn.genprogress.org/content/uploads/2019/02/21103248/AVR-Helped-Young-Voters.pdf
[xi] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Automatic Voter Registration,” April 22, 2019, available at http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/automaticvoter-registration.aspx;
[xii] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Automatic Voter Registration.”
[xiii] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Automatic Voter Registration.”
[xiv] Danielle Root and Liz Kennedy, “Increasing Voter Participation in America.“
[xv] Danielle Root and Liz Kennedy, “Increasing Voter Participation in America.”
[xvi] Anisha Singh, Brittney Souza, and Danielle Root, “Pro-Voter Reforms Were Key to Young Americans Voting in the 2018 Elections.”
[xvii] Vote16USA, “Young Voices At the Ballot Box: Amplifying Youth Activism to Lower the Voting Age in 2020 and Beyond”, February 2020, available at http://vote16usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-Vote16USA-White-Paper-v2.10.pdf.
[xviii] Vote16USA, “Young Voices At the Ballot Box.”
[xix] Vote16USA, “Young Voices At the Ballot Box.”
[xx] Caroline Cournoyer, “Takoma Park, MD Gives 16 Year-Olds the Right to Vote,” October 2013, Available at “https://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-takoma-gives-teens-voting-rights.html
[xxi] City of Takoma Park, Maryland, “City Election and Voter Registration Information,” Available at https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-clerk/city-election-voter-registration-information/.
[xxii] Greenbelt Maryland, “Election Information,” Available at https://www.greenbeltmd.gov/government/city-administration/city-clerk-s-office/election-information.
[xxiii] Vote16USA, “Young Voices At the Ballot Box.”
[xxiv] Vote.org, “Increasing Voter Turnout- One Text At a Time,” Medium, June 27, 2017, Available at https://medium.com/votedotorg/increasing-voter-turnout-with-texts-voteorg-e38bd454bd64.
[xxv] Manny Rin, “Student-led field efforts turn out the youth vote in big numbers,” September 23, 2019, Available at https://studentpirgs.org/2019/09/23/student-led-field-efforts-turn-out-the-youth-vote-in-big-numbers/.
[xxvi] “Future Voters Project Best Practices for High School Voter Registration Drives,” Teaching Tolerance, January 21, 2020, Available at https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/future-voters-project-best-practices-for-high-school-voter-registration-drives.
[xxvii] CBS Baltimore, “Greenbelt Elects Colin Byrd, 27, City’s Youngest Mayor,” November 6, 2019, available at https://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2019/11/06/greenbelt-elects-colin-byrd-27-citys-youngest-mayor/.