Graduation Day: Voter Cards With Diplomas
Indiana Writers Group column for April 12 and thereafter
by Andrea Neal
INDIANAPOLIS — By Indiana law, all high school students must take a one-semester government class before they can get a diploma. A proposal by former presidential candidate John Anderson would reward those students with a voter registration card as well.
In an April 6 article in The New York Times, Anderson and Ray Martinez of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission proposed automatic voter registration for high school seniors. As it is now, first-time 18-year-old voters must follow the same procedure as everyone else: obtain an application, fill it out and get it to the county Board of Voter Registration.
The idea is controversial because registration in this country has always been a matter of individual choice. The 18-year-olds I interviewed were split 50-50 on the proposal, although most expressed genuine interest in upcoming elections. A few said they were already signed up to vote at their first chance, the May 2 primary. (The deadline to register was April 3).
"I registered a couple weeks ago," said Jon Plump, whose government teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School handed out registration forms in class. "A lot of people filled it out but didn’t turn it in."
Those too apathetic to turn in a form won’t likely educate themselves enough to cast an informed vote, Plump said. "It’s a person’s choice whether they want to be involved or not."
"We don’t want people voting just because they can, without making informed decisions," agreed classmate Eric Juster, who volunteered as a canvasser for Democratic candidates in the 2004 election and intends to register before the 2008 presidential election.
Juster said he’s waiting to decide whether to register in Indianapolis or Georgia, where he will attend college. Georgia, like Indiana, permits students to establish residency at their dormitory address and to register to vote in their college communities.
While few would support mandatory voting, which some countries enforce, Anderson heads an organization called FairVote that seeks universal registration of all eligible voters.
Last week’s more modest proposal focuses on young adults because registration levels for them are especially low. According to the Census Bureau, 72 percent of eligible citizens were registered to vote in 2004, but only 58 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.
The Anderson-Martinez proposal is one of several ideas to boost registration rates among the young. Others include:
• HR 4972, a federal proposal that would allow youths to pre-register to vote when they obtain a driver's license, with the registration becoming active when they reach 18.
• A Wisconsin law requiring public high schools to designate a voter registration deputy to facilitate the voter registration process for faculty and students.
• Requiring high schools to provide voter registration forms to every graduating student and to make forms available in schools, as is the law in New York City.
In Indiana, government teachers routinely hand out registration applications to students. County election officials also make it a habit to visit schools and encourage 18-year-olds to register.
William Scales, a senior at Park Tudor, registered in time to vote in this year’s primary – "my mom made me," he quips — but says it’s "perfectly fine" if other seniors are automatically registered as Anderson proposes. "As an American, it’s my duty, regardless of age, to be part of the process."
Peter SerVaas, an 18-year-old Brebeuf junior, says he likes Anderson’s idea. "Individuals who graduate from high school tend to be more educated. Those should be the ones choosing our lawmakers."
Whether automatic registration would boost civic participation is worth studying, says Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who oversees state election law. "I feel that anything that attempts to indoctrinate back into our culture the importance of voting should be examined, and perhaps tried on a pilot basis, to see if it is an effective solution. The voting booth is the foundation of our freedom — the idea that the people choose their leaders at set intervals. Whether this particular proposal would increase such fundamental participation deserves attention. Historically, data shows that increases in registration numbers do not correspond to a sustained voter turnout increase."In the end, apathetic students — those who don’t follow the news or care enough to learn about the issues — won’t vote, even if they are registered. And they shouldn’t.
"Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president," the author Gore Vidal once noted. "One hopes it is the same half."
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Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.