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Traditionally, young voter turnout in California has been notoriously low. Only 8 percent of college-age students voted in 2014, according to the California secretary of state.
To increase young voter turnout, California passed two laws: One signed in 2009 allowed 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the next election to register to vote, another signed in 2014 lowered the legal pre-voter-registration age to 16.
The language used on both the online and paper voter registration form, though, contradicts these age requirements set by state law. The “eligibility” section of the online form reads: “I will be 18 or older by the next election.”
The paper form repeats the same eligibility section and adds, “If you answered no to either question (US Citizen and 18 years old) you cannot register to vote.”
At the bottom of the form, the affidavit line reads: “I am a US Citizen and I will be 18 years old on Election Day.”
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds in California who are eligible to pre-register to vote are reading these lines and deciding that they are not eligible to complete the registration form.
In California, there are more than 1 million juniors and seniors in high school. Most of these students will not be over the age of 18 before the next election. According to these state laws, however, they are clearly eligible to pre-register to vote.
At high schools around California, civics teachers are educating their students about democracy and the importance of voting. I am one of these teachers and my class culminates with students filling out an actual voter registration form.
Updated forms with clearer language allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister are available in California. In San Diego County and other locations, however, they are not being distributed to the public until all of the old forms have been exhausted. When I expressed dismay to a clerk at the San Diego registrar of voters’ office, I was told that this was done in an effort to not waste paper. The decision to continue misinforming potential voters under the guise of being green is a conscious choice by the registrar of voters.
Moreover, the fact that the online form has not been updated immediately is perplexing. The secretary of state recently said in a press release that said the online registration form would not include the updated language until at least after the November election. In this day and age, any programmer should be able to update the form in less than a day. My students would be happy to help.
As I write, there are teachers available to guide their students through this pre-registration process. But once these students leave high school, this resource will not be available to many of them anymore. These years are pivotal to increase the number of young voters who will register.
The language used by the state of California in its outdated voter registration forms is failing these future voters and clearly contradicts the intention of the law. Padilla clearly states his objective of increasing young voter turnout. Yet the most obvious solution, immediately fixing the current voter registration form, is being ignored.
This week I asked how many of my students would fill out voter registration forms next year without my guidance. Most of them honestly answered that they probably would not spend the time to do so alone. If my students had followed the flawed language on these old forms still in circulation, most of them would have been disenfranchised. I can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands of other students over the past seven years have read this language and simply stopped filling out these forms.
The old voter registration forms with the confusing language should be taken out of circulation immediately.
Kacey Caputo is a high school teacher. Caputo’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.