To Be Young, Mobile and Unable to Vote

Last Tuesday, Mainers went to the polls and successfully defended Same-Day Registration in their state.

Earlier this year, the Maine legislature had repealed the decades-old practice based on baseless claims of rampant voter fraud -- fraud that Charlie Webster, Chair of Maine’s Republican Party, and Charlie Summers, Maine’s Secretary of State, failed to prove, try as they did, after dramatically launching an investigation of 206 University of Maine students originally from out of state.

Young would-be voters are being picked on all over the country -- from the photo ID laws that don’t allow student IDs (as opposed to concealed handgun licenses) to changing domicile requirements so that out-of-state students are prevented from voting -- because students are “foolish” and “vote with their feelings.” Plus, now they are also poor, so they really shouldn’t vote.

Young people already register and vote at lower levels than nearly any other group. Fewer than a quarter of 18-29 year olds voted in the 2010 election. And even when youth voter turnout hit a historical high in 2008 of 51 percent, it was still well behind their elders by 11 to 19 percentage points.

Age has long been considered one of the strongest predictors of political participation. A recent study by three political scientists show, however, that contrary to conventional wisdom, lower rates of youth political participation is not because of lower levels of civic resources, social capital or political interest, but almost entirely because of the higher rate of mobility and “the electoral procedures that tie registration to residential location.” Our youth are not too stupid nor apathetic to figure out the complex and arbitrary system of voter registration in America; rather, the residency-based voter registration system itself makes highly mobile young Americans less likely to be registered at the current/correct address.

The study’s analysis based on a new, national random sample of 1.8 million voter registration records shows that registration rates increase with age only until about 22-23 years old and then become constant:

Source: Stephen Ansolabehere, Eitan Hersh and Kenneth Shepsle, Movers, Stayers, and Registration: Why Age is Correlated with Registration in the U.S., May 11, 2011.

Between 2010 and 2011, more than 23 million, or a fifth of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 moved:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), March 2011, analysis by Demos.

Youth voter turnout can be boosted by Same-Day Registration. SDR allows citizens who recently moved into a new election district to register and vote at the time of the election. In 2008, 18-24 year olds in SDR states voted at rates 9 percentage points higher than those who lived in non-SDR states and when other factors – such as education, gender, marital status, age, race, and ethnicity – were taken into account, young people in SDR states were 41 percent more likely to vote in the November 2008 election than those who did not have residence in the EDR states.

Instead of turning back the clock on proven practices that increase participation in our democracy, states should take into account the highly mobile nature of the lives of young Americans and enact SDR and measures like it.