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Encouraging Young New Yorkers to Vote

by Andrea Senteno and Melissa Mohammed, Jun 28, 2007

As high school graduates begin their summer vacations, are they thinking about who they will vote for in the February 2008 presidential primaries – and indeed whether they will vote at all? If recent voting trends can serve as a guide, probably not.

Voter turnout among 18 to 24 year olds has been on the decline nationally since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971. And voter turnout among young people in New York is not much different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2004 presidential election, 49 percent of youth in the state voted, compared with approximately 60 percent of New York’s whole population. By way of comparison, in 1972, 61 percent of 18 to 24 years olds turned out at the polls.

And these trends are even more dismal in non-presidential election years. According to research by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, in the 2002 midterm elections, only 21 percent of New Yorkers aged 18 to 29 voted, compared to a national voter turnout of 49 percent and total voter turnout in New York State of approximately 44 percent.

To reverse the trend of declining voter turnout, legislation has passed both nationally and at the local level to encourage more young voters to register to vote. “Voting is the keystone to our democracy and it is imperative that we send the right message to our children,” said Councilmember Eric Gioia, a lead sponsor of a 2004 bill to increase youth voter registration.

But declining voter turnout rates leave one to wonder if in fact this message is being broadcast loud enough.

Graduate – and Register

In 2004, Gioia introduced the Young Adult Voter Registration Act requiring, in part, that the New York City Department of Education provide voter registration forms to all public school graduates when they receive their diplomas. The bill unanimously passed the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed it into law in July 2004.

According to the Department of Education and Future Voters of America, a non-profit organization that works to empower youth, registration forms are sent to graduates in their graduation packets, yet it is not apparent how many students fill them out and send them in. The forms are not specifically coded for tracking when submitted to the Board of Education, making it difficult to gauge how many high school graduates register to vote as a result of the effort. But a survey by Future Voters found that most students do not complete the forms.

“In many ways the kids seem to sense that the forms they get in their diplomas don’t have a lot of meaning because they aren’t educated about voting,” says Future Voters of America associate executive director Diane Gravicz. She suggests that in the excitement of graduation most recipients toss out the material. “Civics has been pulled from school curriculum and they don’t realize that this piece of paper is the key to their empowerment,” she said.

At that time the “Young Adult Voter Registration Act” was being debated in the Committee on Education, a coalition of groups, including the Black Youth Vote, Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest Research Group and People For the American Way supported the bill but argued that distributing voter registration forms at graduation would not be enough to reverse the trend of declining voter turnout. They pushed for additional measures, including distribution of voter registration forms earlier in the year, perhaps on primary election day; and more discussions of civics in classrooms to inspire young people to be more civically active. Currently, these programs have not been implemented in the schools.

Registering Colleges Students

Among the state’s colleges and universities, attempts to increase voter registration on campus have not fared any better. New York State legislation implementing the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (Motor-Voter Act) requires that all public colleges make voter registration forms available to all of their students. Earlier this month New York State Senator Jeffrey Klein released a report, “Youth At the Polls: A Survey the Effectiveness of Voter Registration at New York Colleges,” on these efforts and found that many colleges and universities in New York fail to make registration materials accessible. The report’s findings show that only 8 percent of the City University, State University and private schools surveyed provided every student with a voter registration form either in the mail or in orientation packets.

“Voter registration is an issue of increasing importance as the country head into the 2008 election cycle,” Klein said. “Our young people are our greatest asset and if we don’t make a serious effort to teach them the value of their vote by making it as simple as possible to participate in our democracy, then we have disenfranchised them from their birthright as citizens of the United States of America.”

Klein’s report made a number of recommendations to improve current law and ensure that all young adults in New York receive a voter registration form when they become eligible to vote. His recommendations included passing legislation that would require the Board of Elections to mail voter registration forms to all eligible voters in New York State when they turn 18, and allowing people to register (but not vote) in advance – when they are 17. In addition, the report recommends ways to ease the process of registration by allowing eligible voters to register online and arranging free postage for voter registration forms.

Lowering the Voting Age

On a national scale, efforts like Rock the Vote, Choose or Loose and Declare Yourself all participate in a growing campaign to engage and educate young voters. A number of non-profit organizations around the city have been pushing for civics education in schools as well as a greater awareness among young people about exercising their political rights and being an educated and active citizen. Some advocates say that targeting young voters early is one of the most effective ways to create a vibrant democracy.

“All of the research shows that we build citizens during the developmental years of high school because most kids are still home and they are attached to the teachers,” said Gravicz.

To accomplish this, some advocate lowering the voting age in New York City municipal elections to 16 years old. Councilmember Gale Brewer was introduced a bill to this effect in 2006. Coupled with comprehensive civics education, proponents believe this may be a more effective way to increase young voter participation as it engages voters at an even earlier age.

Turning Out in 2008

Graduating seniors who turn 18 before February 5 will have their first opportunity to vote for presidents in the 2008 primary. (Hint, hint, click here to register to vote). And with New York’s primary date moved up to February 5 each vote in New York will be much more important than it has been in past primaries — or so the theory behind the recent change of date goes.

While voter registration laws are important to ensuring that voters are able to access the polls and vote in upcoming elections, they provide no guarantee that voters will turn out on Election Day. Perhaps the opportunity to help decide who the next president will be provides incentive enough. We’ll have to wait and see.

Andrea Senteno is program associate and Melissa Mohammed is an intern at Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.