Why don’t more young Americans vote? People (usually older people) will often say it’s because we’re apathetic or we just don’t care, but that’s not true. Young Americans are speaking up about immigration reform, gun violence, climate change, and rights for the LGBTQ+ community. As a 19-year-old Latinx community organizer who has helped thousands of schoolmates and neighbors register to vote, I think there is something else going on. The voter registration process is still too complicated and too inaccessible for young people. That’s why I am part of the movement to streamline voter registration in California and make it a more accessible, efficient, and truly automatic process for people of all ages.
As an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. with my parents when I was seven, I just don’t understand why we are the only advanced democracy in the world where the burden to register falls entirely on the individual.
Despite recent legislative changes that make voter registration more accessible when people visit their local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), many eligible voters are still left out. In fact, a significant number of people opt out of registering at the DMV for various reasons. Some possible explanations are that people don’t want to spend any more time than they have to at the DMV (imagine that!) reviewing eligibility requirements. Others might not fully understand the process or what they are being asked to do. For example, my parents relied on me to understand the voting system after they became citizens because of a lack of information available in their native language. Teaching my parents how to vote before I had any familiarity with the system myself was draining. This is one of the many barriers that prevent younger voters from wanting to go through the process of registering themselves.
Upgrading California's current partial automatic voter registration (PAVR) system to a more streamlined, efficient, secure and accessible Secure AVR (SAVR) model will address these barriers by making DMV registration a more streamlined process. With SAVR, a person provides proof of their voting eligibility during a DMV transaction (for example, a U.S. passport), they are automatically registered to vote. Voters can opt out later by mail, if they desire. Our coalition of grassroots organizations backing this legislation represents young people, people of color, people with disabilities, people who are not yet fully proficient in English, those who are formerly incarcerated, unhoused, housing insecure or geographically mobile. Working together, we’re urging the state legislature and California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber and Governor Gavin Newsom to make voter registration easier and more convenient for everyone.
Fully automated voter registration is already in place in Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, Oregon, Massachusetts, Colorado, and DC, and, in some states, is improving turnout among young people, in particular. This spring, similar bills in Washington , New Mexico, and Minnesota also appeared on governors' desks.
Fully automatic registration is a sure path to expanding the electorate and getting more young people to vote. Research from the Tufts Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) shows that more than eight million young people (who are notably more diverse than the rest of the electorate) became newly eligible to vote in 2022. But CIRCLE found that only 23% of eligible young Americans nationwide cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm elections. By using every tool at their disposal to get more eligible voters registered and to get those registered to the polls, states have the power to change these statistics. According to a report from NextGen Policy, after adopting fully automatic registration, Colorado saw a 173% increase in the rate of 16- and 17-year-olds preregistering to vote at the DMV. (Preregistration allows young people to register early so they will be on the voter rolls for the first election in which they are eligible to vote.)
Today, about 4.7 million California citizens are eligible but unregistered to vote. That’s a higher number than the population of Louisiana. It includes my classmates in college who are too stressed about finals to think about registering or the classmates I knew in high school who do not interact with the DMV. Making it easier for more people to get registered is critical to addressing disparities in voting among Californians, especially among 18-to-24-year-olds, whose turnout rate in the 2020 election was 20 percentage points lower than the rest of our population.
Fully automating the registration process at the DMV is an important step, but we can still do more. Surveys show that young people, in particular, are driving less and less, meaning they may not be visiting the DMV in the first place. That means we should also be exploring other ways to reach young people with automatic forms for voter registration through other government agencies, for example, Medicaid or Medi-Cal as it’s known in California.
My application for US citizenship was approved this Wednesday, finally allowing me to register to elect leaders who are fighting for pathways to citizenship and reproductive freedom – two issues I care about deeply. As an immigrant, I often feel excluded and overwhelmed reading about social issues that affect me, with the knowledge that I could not vote. Voting serves as a voice for those who cannot use theirs. I want more of my peers to be able to share the excitement and privilege I feel about voting, not seeing it as a chore, but as a powerful tool. Just as important, I want more of my peers to show up at the polls and have more impact and influence on the issues we care about. Because it’s our California and our country, too. And we deserve an equal voice and equal opportunities to register — and vote.
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