Teens swell voter rolls

Published 8:32 am Thursday, October 11, 2012

It may behoove local, state and national candidates seeking public office to target the teen vote in advance of the Nov. 6 General Election.

In excess of 60,000 new, young voters across North Carolina will be able to cast ballots next month thanks to a unique state law that allowed them to preregister when they were as young as 16 years old.

According to information supplied by Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan election reform organization, that youthful block of voters are capable of changing the outcome of tightly contested races. However, Hall said that despite their strength in numbers, the political affiliation of these young adults indicates that neither party will gain an easy advantage from their addition to the voter rolls.

An analysis by Democracy North Carolina of teenage preregistrants indicates that 30 percent are affiliating with the Democratic Party and the same share – 30 percent – is signing up with the Republican Party. One percent is aligning with the Libertarian Party and 39 percent are choosing none of the parties.

“These young voters run the gamut, from those signing up at the DMV almost automatically when they get their first driver’s license, to those who fill out the form in high school after studying the election process in their civics class,” said Hall. “They are more independent and more inclined to evaluate candidates without relying on party labels.”

The latest numbers, available through the end of August, do not account for thousands more teenagers who registered in September due to the same North Carolina law that requires county boards of elections to conduct voter registration and preregistration drives in high schools each year during Citizens Awareness Month (September).

More than 8,500 youth, ages 16 and 17, preregistered during September of last year. Hall predicts that at least that number will likely sign up this year.

In the local Roanoke-Chowan area, Northampton County led the way with 231 teenage preregistrations by the end of August. Bertie (222), Hertford County (122) and Gates County (75) also added teens to their voter rolls.

The preregistration law, which became effective in 2010, had broad bipartisan support when it passed. It was co-sponsored by four legislators, including Rep. Justin Burr (R-Albemarle), the youngest Republican in the General Assembly, and Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Charlotte), the youngest Democrat.

Five other states allow citizens to preregister as young as 16, but North Carolina’s law is the only one that requires election officials to hold drives in high schools annually, said Hall. The five states are Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, and Rhode Island.

A memo from the State Board of Elections to county boards in late August says, “This will be the third year that county boards of elections will be required to conduct voter registration and preregistration drives at public high schools in your county. You will need to work with your local school district to arrange these events.”

The memo notes that county election officials “may partner with other groups in order to staff these voter registration drives” and help inform the new voters about the election process. The League of Women Voters is assisting in several counties, but in many places parents, students and teachers are still surprised to learn about the preregistration program.

Previous reports of activities sent by counties to the State Board of Elections in 2010 and 2011 indicate that some local election boards are more effective at engaging the students than others. Hall said some of the most successful initiatives occurred in Burke, Cabarrus, Chatham, Craven, Edgecombe, Madison, Nash, Richmond, and Wayne counties.

Larger counties, including Cumberland, Forsyth, Guilford and Union, are signing up an average of over 1,000 preregistrants a year; Wake and Mecklenburg add more than 3,000 a year.

In the 32 months since the new law took effect (January 2010 through August 2012), a total of 107,400 16 and 17 year olds have preregistered and automatically become fully registered when they reach voting age. The analysis by Democracy North Carolina includes a table of total preregistrants by county and a statewide summary broken down by party and race.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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