Toward an Inclusive Democracy: The Positive Impact of Preregistration Laws on Youth Voter Turnout

Low turnout among young voters in the United States has recently garnered attention, prompting policymakers and political scientists to design electoral reforms aimed at bringing young Americans into the public decision-making process. The most common strategies have included early voting and online voter registration; however, some scholars have also urged reforms aimed at reducing legal deterrents to voting, such as voter registration and identification requirements.

In the face of these efforts, studies have indicated that such electoral reforms have had little to no impact on electoral engagement, and have even had an adverse effect on political participation in many cases. These findings suggest that efforts to implement electoral reform policies and remove barriers to voting are ineffective at motivating young people to vote. Nevertheless, a new study by John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus shows that preregistration laws, which allow citizens younger than 18 to register before they are eligible to vote, could be a more effective solution.

Preregistration laws have been introduced in a number of states since Florida first implemented a preregistration law in 1990. However, prior to the Holbein and Hillygus study, no researchers had conducted empirical tests to determine the impact of such laws. The authors’ investigation into the effects of preregistration laws in several states indicates that preregistration does improve voter participation in significant ways where other electoral reforms have failed. The authors examine data from 2000–2012 in the Current Population Survey in order to compare youth voter turnout rates in states that have a preregistration system and those that do not.

Holbein and Hillygus find that preregistration laws have a tangible and positive effect on youth voter turnout. The first assessment found that youth turnout is between two and 13 percent higher in states with a preregistration system. The second revealed that the voting rate in the 2012 election was eight percent higher for those young voters who were ineligible to vote in 2008 but who took advantage of preregistration compared to those who were eligible to vote in 2008 and were already registered.

The study’s findings also demonstrate that the positive effect on turnout applies equally to a diverse set of young voter groups. For example, the following increases in turnout were observed: Democrats (7.6 percent) and Republicans (7.4 percent), males (7.3 percent) and females (7.4 percent), and white voters (7.6 percent) and minority voters (8.0 percent). Thus, preregistration is not only effective but also politically feasible, as it benefits multiple voter subgroups.

One might ask how to account for the success of preregistration in light of numerous failed electoral reforms. One possibility is that preregistration laws, unlike other reforms, exclusively apply to students of high school age and such students are likely to interact with teachers and parents who provide information and guidance that may encourage their political participation. For example, teachers may bring attention to current political campaigns, thereby fostering an interest in the political process. Thus, the authors posit that educational institutions and the environments they create may influence the likelihood that a given student will preregister to vote, which could in turn influence electoral participation. This may ultimately have implications for how schools approach civic education and how politicians reach out to young voters in the future.

This study establishes a framework for furthering state-level electoral policy reforms. By incorporating teenagers into states’ voter registration rolls at a younger age, their exposure to the political process increases by default and the data show that this exposure can drive up their voting rate. Public officials, political parties, and other political entities may be encouraged to court voters at an earlier age through outreach measures, as well as policy platforms that address the interests and concerns of young people. Perhaps most importantly, the value of youth engagement in public decision-making processes lies in the fact that increased political participation is a reflection of a sound democracy that aims to represent all citizens from every walk of life.

Article source: Holbein, John B., Hillygus, D. Sunshine. “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 60, no. 2 (2015): 364-82.

Featured photo: cc/(hermosawave, photo ID: 145914665, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook (MPP '18) is a staff writer for Law & Politics. He is interested in political economy, civil-military relations, and electoral politics.

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