Expert Commentary

Do preregistration laws improve voter turnout among young adults?

2016 study in the American Journal of Political Science that looks at the effectiveness of preregistration laws, which allow youth to register to vote before they are eligible to vote.

Policymakers and advocates are continually seeking ways to improve civic engagement, particularly among the nation’s youngest citizens. In 1971, the U.S. Constitution was amended to expand the right to vote to younger Americans, and the minimum voting age dropped to 18 for federal and state elections. Despite the change, young voters consistently have had the lowest election turnout rates of any age group. In the 2012 presidential election, only 45 percent of citizens aged 18 to 29 years old voted — compared to 72 percent of citizens aged 65 years and older, who had the highest turnout, a U.S. Census Bureau report shows.

As states have worked to boost civic engagement and voter participation, most have adopted preregistration laws, or laws that allow teenagers to register to vote before they will be eligible to cast ballots. These laws were created with the hope that youth will be more likely to vote as adults if they are involved in the election process at an earlier age. States vary in terms of their preregistration age limits, but 11 states, including California, Colorado and Louisiana, allow U.S. citizens as young as 16 years old to sign up, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A number of agencies, including local supervisor of elections offices, hold preregistration drives in high school classrooms and at school-wide events. National organizations such as Rock the Vote and Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) also help young people register to vote and urge them to go to the polls.

But how well do preregistration programs work? Do teens who register to vote actually participate in elections once they turn 18? Two scholars from Duke University, John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus, looked into the issue for their 2016 study, “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout,” published in the American Journal of Political Science. Holbein and Hillygus tried to gauge the impact of preregistration by analyzing data collected through the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey for 2000–2012. They also examined preregistration and voting trends in Florida, which, in 1990, became the first state to implement a preregistration law. The study defines young voters as those between the ages of 18 and 22.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Preregistration increases the probability that young voters will participate in elections. The probability that youth will vote increases in states with preregistration laws by an average of 2 percentage points to 13 percentage points, depending on the model the authors used for their analysis.
  • In Florida specifically, preregistering increases turnout by 3 percent to 14 percent.
  • The impact of preregistration is similar for young Democrats and young Republicans. Preregistration raised voter turnout by about 7.6 percentage points among young Democrats and 7.4 percentage points among young Republicans.
  • The impact of preregistration is similar for men and women and for white voters and minority voters. Preregistration raised voter turnout by about 7.3 percentage points among males and 7.4 percentage points among females. It raised voter turnout by about 7.6 percentage points among white voters and 8 percentage points among minorities.

The authors suggest that while there is evidence that preregistration improves youth turnout, future research should examine why this policy is effective when other electoral reforms have failed. Holbein and Hillygus indicate that in-school voting demonstrations in Florida may reinforce the positive effects of preregistration in that state.

Related research: A 2015 report from the Education Commission of the States, “Youth Voting: State and City Approaches to Early Civic Engagement, Education Trends,” looks at efforts to encourage youth to vote in city and state elections. A 2013 study by scholars at Dartmouth College and the University of Florida, “The Effects of House Bill 1355 on Voter Registration in Florida,” considers the consequences of new regulations placed on community organizations that help citizens register to vote.


Keywords: voter behavior, voter mobilization, election reform, right to vote, registration drive

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