Start the voting habit early

Maryland counties and schools should push civics education to the next step with pre-registration of 16-year-olds

August 11, 2010|By Rebecca Guterman

In Maryland, the 2007 case of then-17-year-old Sarah Boltuck was a wake-up call for youth voting rights. Ms. Boltuck wanted to vote in the February 2008 presidential primary because she would be 18 by the general election, as had been the practice in Maryland for decades, but election officials told her that now it would be prohibited, based on a state court ruling the year before. She and her father refused to take no for an answer. Working with allies like FairVote, she ultimately helped spark both major parties to say they would count the votes of 17-year-olds in their primaries. She still took the case to court and won back primary voting rights for 17-year-olds in a remarkable victory for young people.

As a new voter and recent graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools, I have benefited from Ms. Boltuck's victory and all the programs the state provides to encourage civic participation. We do some civic education really well — but we could do all the better in setting a model for the country.

Maryland requires all students to be proficient in government through a class on government, usually taken in 10th grade. The test (and corresponding course) covers everything from the founding fathers to policymaking, and teachers often take advantage of the proximity to the nation's capital to bring in speakers from think tanks, nonprofits and Congress, giving students an in-depth look at the political system so close to home.

State legislators have acted to support youth involvement as well, backing Ms. Boltuck on 17-year-old primary voting and adopting new voter pre-registration laws this year. Now all 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote, leaving their registration status pending until they become eligible voters.

Some counties take youth engagement further. In Montgomery County, for example, students as young as 11 are encouraged to volunteer at the polls, exposing them at an early age to the electoral process and getting them ready to vote. Sixth- through twelfth-graders also have the opportunity to use voting machines when they vote for the student member of the Board of Education, who represents them with his vote on the board. Other counties and Baltimore City should consider similar programs.

But I'd like Maryland to take the lead once again. Let's use Constitution Day, a little-noted federal observance on Sept. 17, to build on what government classes already teach, and have schoolwide plans focused on the history and value of suffrage to encourage pre-registration — building on a 2007 Maryland law designed to promote just this idea. Then, at the end of the year, when most 10th-graders are 16 or older, let's pre-register those students in an environment where they feel comfortable voicing their questions. If every government class did this, almost all eligible teenagers in the county would be registered, increasing the likelihood that they will vote.

Voting is a right, responsibility and privilege all wrapped into one. We should treat it that way. The infrastructure is already there; it just needs a little more attention, a little bit of a push. I am only now realizing the solid civics foundation my school provided me, but it is too late for me to get more involved at the high school level. With even more emphasis put on voter registration drives and civics curricula, high school students throughout the county and state will be able to realize their opportunities long before I did and get excited about voting.

Rebecca Guterman, a 2010 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School, is a summer intern at FairVote in Takoma Park. Her e-mail is rguterman@fairvote.org.

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