Teen voter registration

The Colorado Legislature in its last session passed a measure that allows 16-year-olds to preregister to vote when they get their driver’s license, but they cannot actually participate in an election until they turn 18. While the preregistration 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 who can now preregister 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 youths are – is a commendable effort for legislators to make.

The net effect of this particular measure, though, is a bit murky. Preregistering 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 preregistering 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 elections. 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 preregistration law seems to do little in the way of actually engaging future voters. Thus far, there have been just eight teens to preregister with the La Plata County Clerk’s office since the measure took effect in August. That lackluster response – which may be buoyed when the driver’s license option begins 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.

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