February 18, 2008

‘People just really want to get their voice heard’

Posted in Barack Obama, election day registration, Elections, Maryland voting, Voter ID, Voting Rights tagged , , , , , , at 12:06 pm by bluebanshee

Eliminating unnecessary barriers for young voters 

Word came recently from Maryland that one barrier to voting by young citizens had been removed — at least in that state. The Washington Post headline says it all: “One Teen’s Campaign to Restore Voting Rights.”

Last month, Boltuck, along with her father and a sympathetic state senator, persuaded Maryland‘s top legal minds to restore the right of suffrage to at least 50,000 teens who will turn 18 between the Feb. 12 primary and the Nov. 4 election. http://tinyurl.com/2pp3fl

Sarah Boltuck fought all the way to the state election board and then the attorney general’s office to attain the right to vote in the February Maryland primary. The problem that caused all the controversy was that the high school senior had not yet attained the age of 18 by the February primary date. But Boltuck would be 18 in time to vote in November and felt she should be able to participate in the process of selecting the candidates whose names would appear on the general election ballot come November.

“I thought that was one of my rights as a citizen of Maryland,” said Boltuck, who will be 18 in July. “I had assumed that when I registered to vote, it’d be no problem.”

She called attention to a little-noticed change in interpretation of state law. Maryland was one of nine states, including Virginia, that allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they reached 18 by the general election. (The District does not.) But the Maryland State Board of Elections quietly halted the practice in December 2006 in response to a state court ruling. http://tinyurl.com/2pp3fl

Fortunately because of Boltuck’s challenge one barrier to participation by youthful voters in Maryland has been removed.

But that does not mean that no obstacles remain to participating in Maryland and other states. As the WaPo article makes clear, Maryland is only one of nine states that allow 17 year olds to vote if they will be 18 by the date of the November general election.

What about the other 41 states? High school seniors will not be able to vote in primaries and caucuses in the vast majority of states (plus the District of Columbia) this year. This is unfortunate in a year that has energized the youth vote in an unprecedented way. Barack Obama’s candidacy has inspired this generation to turn out in record numbers and Sarah Boltuck is just one student who was motivated to participate in Maryland’s Feb. 12 primary by the prospect of being able to cast a ballot for her preferred candidate.

However there are other problems faced by young voters that might not be faced by other groups of voters. One of them revolves around requirements for voter ID in many states. Young voters are less likely to have access to the kind of ID that is required to register to vote and to cast a ballot in many states and are therefore more likely to be disenfranchised by voter ID requirements:

  • birth certificate? — Mom and Dad might know about that stuff but high school and college students usually haven’t a clue.
  • utility bill with their name on it? — get real! — high school students haven’t left the nest yet.
  • U.S. passport? — only 10% of Americans have passports so the vast majority of young voters won’t have them either.
  • driver’s license? — of course, many high school students have a driver’s license but mostly in suburban and rural areas. However, in many large cities (New York, Chicago, New Orleans, for instance) many residents including high school and college students don’t get driver’s licenses because they don’t own a car, rely on public transit to get around and don’t have any reason to get a driver’s license except for the need to show ID to vote!

One of the other situations facing young voter (18-25 year olds) is that they are going through transitions about where they live and vote.

If they go away to college then they need to grapple with voting absentee from their parents’ address or quickly navigating the voter registration requirements of their college or university jurisdiction in time to vote in November. With many states having voter registration deadlines that nearly coincide with the beginning of fall term classes it is particularly challenging for college students to meet them.

If they join the military they need to deal with absentee voting to their home jurisdiction or re-registration near their military base. This could be very challenging if they are deployed overseas in a combat zone.

Unlike Sarah Boltuck, many young voters are pre-occupied with these transitions in their lives and only pay attention to the election after the voter registration deadlines are long past in their state. They are effectively disenfranchised by arbitrary registration deadlines.

One solution that has been proposed is election day registration. In states like Minnesota that allow voters to register through the close of polls on election day, participation in the electoral process is higher as a percentage of the eligible population (including young voters) than states that have arbitrary cutoffs for registration well before election day. So election day registration would open up the process to young voters if it were implemented in more states.

Other ways to encourage involvement by young voters might be to automatically register every high school senior. Or perhaps, include a voter registration form in the college class registration packet for incoming students.

The more the barriers are removed that keep 18-25 year olds away from the polls, the more likely they are to participate. However, the one ingredient that is essential is a candidate that inspires and energizes this generation of potential voters — in 2008 that candidate is Barack Obama:

Obama has been courting young voters. His first public campaign stop in Maryland, for example, was an October visit to Prince George’s Community College.

Young voters seem to be responding. They figured prominently in Obama’s Iowa victory and strong second-place New Hampshire showing. A majority of Democratic voters ages 17 to 29 chose Obama in Iowa, and a majority of 18- to 24-year-olds picked him in New Hampshire, the largest share of voters in any age group to back a single candidate of either party, according to CNN entrance and exit polls. On the Internet site Facebook, a mecca for high school and college students, the largest group devoted to Obama has more than 400,000 members. http://tinyurl.com/2pp3fl

Obama’s candidacy has brought new young voters into the process. This phenomenon is proof of Jim Hightower’s dictum: “If God wanted us to vote, he’d have given us candidates.”

If young voters have a candidate to believe in, they will indeed be stand up to be counted for that candidate. Let’s remove unnecessary barriers that keep these enthusiastic young citizens from standing up for their chosen candidate.

Let’s give Sarah Boltuck the final word:

“People just really want to get their voice heard.”

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