Covering politics in North Carolina and beyond, VoterRadio.com is streaming 24 hours a day. Listen live or on-demand.
Graduating to Citizenship
Bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to 'pre-register' to vote
By Rep. Tricia Cotham
Published: May 25, 2009
RALEIGH - It’s graduation time. High school students across North Carolina are donning cap and gown to celebrate the successful completion of their childhood education. It’s a joyous time, not just for the kids, but for all of us.
Rep. Tricia Cotham introduced House Bill 1260, which would allow 16- and 17-year-old North Carolinians to 'pre-register' to vote.
As taxpayers, we have a small fortune invested in these young folks. We spend roughly $80,000 per pupil to get these kids from kindergarten to the 12th grade. Now that they are becoming adults and full-fledged citizens, we expect a return on our investment. We want our young people to utilize their education to become engaged and productive members of our society.
As both a member of the General Assembly and an educator, I know how important it is to prepare children for adulthood. In most every aspect of their development, we provide our young people with ample skills to become contributing members of society. Before we send them out to the real world we do our best to make sure they are well-rounded. Sure, we teach them reading, writing and arithmetic, but we also offer practical education that prepares students with job and life skills.
We can always improve. One thing we can and must do better is preparing young people to become engaged participants in their democracy. Much as we expect the education we provide to pay dividends by preparing young people to be productive, we must also expect that they participate in the self-governance that sets us apart from so many other nations.
Through our civics education curriculum we teach the mechanics of government. In our history courses we tell the story of how our nation came to be. But practical engagement in our democracy is often neglected. Not because we don’t teach it, but because it is difficult to make it relevant. Your typical teenager sees being able to register and vote as an abstract and distant proposition; something that need not be worried about until much later. This needs to change.
This year I introduced legislation that would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to “pre-register” to vote. This law wouldn’t change the voting age, but would rather get young people signed up so when they do turn 18, they are ready to vote. Much like our young people get a learner’s permit before they can get a driver’s license, pre-registration is a way to expose teenagers to democracy before they become voting citizens.
Allowing pre-registration would make civics lessons more relevant. As an added benefit, many kids would be able to utilize our excellent motor voter program when they get their first driver’s license. Although this small change won’t revolutionize our democracy, it will help engage our next generation of citizens in the electoral process. The State Board of Elections can implement this change using existing resources.
Today’s young people have so many competing demands for their time and attention. Voting and registration may not be at the top of the list, but anything we can do to help young people participate in democracy is worth it.