A legislative initiative praised Thursday by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon soon would let young Minnesotans take an earlier first step toward voting.

Meanwhile, new bipartisan legislation was heard by committees in the state House and Senate that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote in elections so they were automatically added to voting rolls once they turn 18.

If passed, Minnesota would join 22 other states that support some form of preregistration for high-school-aged people.

Supporters hope the measure will help increase young voters’ participation in elections, help address the voting gap between younger and older voters, and encourage community engagement, said Simon, who at a Thursday news conference urged legislators to support the idea. “It’s about getting good habits started early,” Simon said. “Voting is a doorway or gateway to those other forms of civic engagement.”

The bill, authored by Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, and Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, would have set up preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. The House amended its version Thursday to cover only 17-year-olds.

Supporters of the legislation cited a 2014 Duke University study of preregistration laws in Hawaii and Florida that found that the policies could increase young voters’ turnout from 8 percent to 13 percent.

“It’s critical that people start voting early, because it’s something that habits develop around,” said Ryan Kennedy, executive director of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a student advocacy organization. “You’re either setting yourself up to be a voter for life or a nonvoter for life.”

In the 2014 election, Minnesota’s young-voter turnout was about 19 percent, Simon said. “In presidential years, voters in that age range — 18 to 24 — vote at or above 50 percent,” he said. “So there’s a real fluctuation and a real need, I think, to get people engaged.”

Preregistration is equally effective for Democratic and Republican registrants, the Duke study found. “This bill, I strongly believe, gives no advantage to any particular political party or ideology,” Simon said, adding that the momentum behind the legislation has been student-driven.

“I support this bill because it gives people my age a chance to engage in democracy,” Blaine High School student Lujain Al-Khawi said at a news conference Thursday. “As a high school student, I want the education system here in Minnesota to prepare its citizens and students to be active.”

Adopting the preregistration policy would give clearer guidelines to first-time voters on when they will be able to vote, Kennedy said.

Now, young people can register as long they are 18 by the next election, Kennedy said, which can be confusing when special elections, primary elections and general elections are taking place at different times.

 

Parker Lemke is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.