Teen voter registration

Symbolic move may prompt earlier engagement but little else

The Colorado Legislature in its last session passed a measure that allows 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they get their driver’s license, but they cannot actually participate in an election until they have turned 18. While the pre-registration option may plant a seed in young minds about their future role in the democratic process, it is largely a reminder that younger teens are not yet welcome on that stage. At its root, the law is symbolic — with a slight tinge of pragmatic function.

The bill was passed along partisan lines, with all the Legislature’s Democrats voting in favor, and all Republicans opposing it. That tracks with the trend that younger voters tend to align with Democrats, but it does not necessarily amount to much in terms of election results. The 16- and 17-year-olds that can now pre-register can do little else with their newfound ability. Nevertheless, the process leading to the law’s passage was inclusive of youth voices, and that is potentially of lasting value.

As Logan Graham, vice chairman of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council and Durango High School junior, said of the measure, “It was really a youth-oriented bill, and it was good to get the youth opinion.”

That is true, and involving young people in the political process does help cultivate lifelong participation. Seeking and responding to input from any constituents — particularly those who are disenfranchised, as youth are — is a commendable effort for legislators to make. The net effect of this particular measure, though, is a bit murky. Pre-registering could potentially expedite the process of sending out ballots to new voters once they reach age 18 — a somewhat attractive component of the new law for county clerks. However, if pre-registering teens move or change their affiliation between their initial sign-up and their first election, they will have to update their registration nonetheless. That raises the question of what exactly the bill accomplishes.

Perhaps it could serve as a foothold for lowering the voting age — something states are empowered to do for both state and federal election. More likely, though, it was an exercise in civic engagement for young people who made their case in the legislative process and won support from lawmakers. Those are important results on their own merit — regardless of the bill’s content.

For its part, though, the pre-registration law seems to do little in the way of actually engaging future voters. Thus far, there have been few teens to pre-register since the measure took effect in August. That lackluster response — which may be buoyed when the driver’s license option opens in January — suggests that young people are aware of the new law’s symbolic nature and not in a particular hurry to sign up to vote in two years. It is a nice idea, but that is about it.