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No More Pre-Registration Puts Youth Vote In Question

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As the legislative wheels turn, the Voter Identification Verification Act was introduced, debated, and passed at light speed. It was late July - the last week of the General Assembly’s session - when Republican leaders introduced the sweeping voting changes.

On that laundry list of changes was section 12.1.D. It eliminated a program that pre-registered 16-and-17-year-old high school students to vote. And while it wasn’t a headline grabber like voter ID or early voting, it was briefly debated in the General Assembly, leading to this exchange between Democratic State Senator Josh Stein and the author of the bill, Republican Senator Bob Rucho.

“My son turned 18 went through the school process and was pre-registered and the like and was very confusing as to when he was supposed to do that,” said Rucho. “What this does is offer some clarity and some certainty as to when that child or that young person is eligible to vote and registered to vote. That’s what it’s designed to do.”

“Did your son not know he was 17 on election day?” Stein shot back.

A few months later, Senator Rucho again cites his own family’s confusion, but says ending pre-registration and revising the other election regulations was about making the entire process simpler.

“We looked at it and said ‘wait a minute’ this is way too confusing and way too difficult to administrate,” Rucho said. “You have so many rules and regulations that are on top of the different governmental organizations. They’re having a hard time keeping up with everything.”

WUNC contacted three state and local elections officials. None would go on the air, but all said the pre-registrations did not pose a significant administrative burden.

That’s also the opinion of voting-rights advocates.

“There is no confusion,” said Jo Nicholas, the state director of the League of Women Voters. “This is just an extra add-on onto this bill. Having them already pre-registered assists with the board of elections. At the same time it gave us an opportunity to send them a reminder card later on after they graduate.”

During the first week of classes at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, teacher Brian Schneidewind uses a video clip of Disney’s Robin Hood to introduce his civics class to the Magna Carta.

Schneidewind starts his lessons here, in 13th century England and the first glimmer of constitutional law, and by the end of the semester eventually gets to the modern U.S. government. In the past, he’s incorporated a real-world experience for the students – pre-registering to vote.

“We’re here talking about what makes up a government and kind of what steps they have to take and naturally students form opinions from that and so here’s an opportunity to speak their mind in a real life setting,” says Schneidewind.

He says he has never, in his eight years administering the pre-registration drives, heard students express confusion about when they were allowed to vote.

“It didn’t take very long and it wasn’t much time out of my day,” said Destiny Black, a senior at Millbrook who pre-registered to vote. “But I think it was definitely very helpful and definitely will help me in the future especially when I finally do get up on that morning and will be able to vote.”

For those students who intend to vote but don’t have cars or aren’t spending a lot of time figuring out where government buildings are, pre-registering was also a huge time-saver.

“I think it’s easy to underestimate the logistical complexities of registration for students, because they are basically slaves to their schedules and their resources,” said Anjali Nagulpally a senior who has not pre-registered.

Anjali says ending the program feels a little demeaning and points to a broader generational problem – an issue anyone who was once a teenager can identify with.

“They’re making it harder for us to have our voice heard especially now when especially now when we want it to be heard” she said. “It’s almost like they don’t understand what’s going on.”

Teachers, like Schneidewind, say they will continue to encourage young people to register to vote and get involved in the political process. Voting-rights advocates, meanwhile, are preparing a legal challenge to the new law.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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