New California Senate Bill 113 would encourage teen voter pre-registration

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Young drivers in California may soon be able to pre-register while attaining their learner’s permit (photo: Flickr/beardenb)

A new proposal aimed at boosting voter turnout among young people would permit California teenagers as young as 15 to pre-register to vote.

The legislation, SB 113, introduced by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), hopes to encourage teens applying for their learner’s permit or driver’s license at the DMV to pre-register to vote.

“Becoming a driver is an important rite of passage, and so is becoming a voter,” explained Jackson in a statement. “When teenagers take the wheel to become a driver, we’re saying, let’s create an easy opportunity for them to also become a future voter.”

The underlying idea is to engage adolescents the first time they interact with a government agency, which is most often the DMV. But teens would also be afforded the opportunity to pre-register online or by mail.

“It’s a smart way of capturing a much greater number of young voters,” said Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote, a non-partisan organization committed to engaging and building political power among young people.

While the launch of online voter registration helped boost the number of 18-24 year olds added to the voter registration rolls last year, these young people remain underrepresented as a proportion of the state’s overall electorate and participate at a much lower rate than older residents.

Although pre-registrants would remain ineligible to vote until their 18th birthday, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a sponsor of the bill, believes pre-registration will be a “powerful tool” to instill the habit of voting among young people.

“Studies show the earlier you get kids interested in democracy and believing their voice makes a difference, the more likely they are to register to vote and become lifelong voters,” said Evan Goldberg, Chief Deputy Secretary of State, commenting on bill.

Seven other states and the District of Colombia already allow some form of pre-registration. Under Jackson’s bill, which would take effect next January, California teens would be the youngest in the country allowed to pre-register to vote.   

A relatively unknown provision of existing state law already allows 17-year olds turning 18 before the next election to register to vote.

The registration of minors was a hot topic at last week’s Future of California Elections conference. In order to increase the potential impact on closing the age-gap in voter participation, many attendees, including both elections officials and reform advocates, expressed the need to pair civic education with pre-registration.

Supplementing pre-registration with a high school civics course, “would go a really long way to furthering the engagement of traditionally disenfranchised or underrepresented voters,” said Smith.

Although the room agreed overall on the importance of engaging youth, not everyone was quick to embrace the new proposal.

One elections administrator voiced deep concern about the bill due to the “astronomical” number of absentee ballots his office received in 2012 with voters’ signatures that did not match those on file. Having checked my driver’s license immediately upon hearing this comment, I have to admit that my signature on file at the DMV still reflects my teenage interest in stars and “X’s” and is a far cry from the scribble I currently use. Luckily I always vote in person.

No silver bullet exists to boost millennial participation, noted Goldberg, pre-registration is simply “one piece in a very large puzzle in terms of engaging people civically.” But one thing is for certain, the health and legitimacy of our representative democracy depends upon expanding the electorate to ensure all of California’s diverse voices are heard. 


Alexandra Bjerg

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