State Policies and Statutes that Support Growing Voters
Note: Updated with policies in place as of mid-2022.
Youth civic participation in elections and beyond depends on information, access, and sustained investment in opportunities to engage in democracy. CIRCLE’s Growing Voters framework describes how multiple stakeholders can help youth be prepared, ready, and excited to vote long before they turn 18. Schools play a key role in addressing the inequities in resources and opportunities that turn into differences in participation rates—especially in reaching diverse young people who may not otherwise be primed for political involvement.
One way that states can grow voters is by effectively and equitably implementing existing policies and legal statutes on voter registration and voter education activities in schools, or electoral engagement opportunities for young people before they turn 18. CIRCLE has undertaken a comprehensive analysis of this complex landscape of laws and statutes in order to better understand how different states are approaching or can enhance these efforts. Because these policies change with some frequency, this is not a real-time policy scan, but an updated point-in-time snapshot from July 2022 that allows us to examine the range and breadth of activities codified into state law that schools and communities can employ to grow voters.
Our policy and statute scan reveals that there is a wide range of approaches to legislation about youth voter registration and education across the country. (Note: for simplicity, when we mention “states” below, we include Washington, D.C.)
- There is wide variance in the number of registration/education initiatives mentioned in statutes/codes across states.
- The states offering the most robust opportunities for voter registration, education, and engagement of high school-aged youth span the political and geographic spectrum, from Utah to Virginia, and from Ohio to Massachusetts
- States have different approaches to their legal codes, and the number of individual policies or statutes on the books doesn’t necessarily align with the breadth of activities allowed. Some states have multiple statutes spread across their legal and administrative codes that elaborate on the implementation of one activity (e.g., youth serving as poll workers); others mention several optional activities within one statute or clause (e.g., mock elections or debates, educational workshops, and voter registration drives).
- While states’ policies and statutes largely focus on a similar range of activities, the specific language used often differs greatly and has significant implications on the implementation of the statutes.
Collective Responsibility for Implementation
We typically place responsibility for what happens in schools on teachers and school leaders. Our analysis, however, underscores the vast web of stakeholders who play a role in the civic engagement and education opportunities afforded to students: from secretaries of state, to local election boards, to district leaders, to private funders. Most policies and statutes we identified suggest actions that these individuals may take, rather than outline activities that they’re required to do, so it’s important to understand each group’s potential role and authority in order to help spur action in your community.
One of the stakeholder groups most frequently referenced in these state codes are local election clerks and/or the chairs of local election boards. In some cases the codes acknowledge their responsibility for disseminating voter registration forms to schools or for appointing and training deputy registrars on campuses. In other states they’re given the opportunity to facilitate voter registration workshops, offer use of county voting equipment or sample ballots to schools, or appoint young people as poll workers within their precincts. They’re also the experts on local election policies, whose partnership and resources can prove immensely useful for school or district leaders unable or unwilling to single-handedly take on organizing election-related activities in their institutions.
Several states also promote the possibility of student leadership in voter registration efforts. With training in registration procedures and non-partisan voter outreach, students themselves can play an active role in supporting schools’ voter registration or education activities that may further energize them and their peers and support civic engagement.
A Call to Action
These policies and statutes don’t paint a full picture of all the work being done in schools and communities to prepare young people for electoral participation. In addition, for this analysis we did not examine social studies standards that may incorporate teaching about elections and voting. However, we believe this is a useful starting point for conversations about what’s allowed, what’s required, and where we can go from here. As we learn from these policies and statutes and look beyond them to what’s happening in our own communities, we need to give weight to the power of both policymaking and policy implementation—each has a discernible impact on what happens on the ground in our communities, and each is an iterative process that shapes these efforts’ effectiveness and impact.
Teachers and school administrators, especially, have an opportunity to connect these statutes with work already underway at their institutions. The Teaching for Democracy Alliance, a 19-member coalition coordinated by CIRCLE and dedicated to supporting K-12 students in learning about elections and voting, offers a wealth of lesson plans, resources, research, and professional development opportunities for interested educators. Leaders and stakeholders outside the classroom should learn more about and leverage the excellent nonpartisan work already happening locally as they marshal resources, build partnerships, or engage in advocacy to ensure that a Growing Voters approach is written into state policies and statutes and, more importantly, takes root in our communities and our schools.
Learn More about Specific Policies and Statutes
Pre-registration allows young people to complete a voter registration application so they will be officially registered to vote once they turn 18. States are counted as having this policy if they extend pre-registration to both 16- and 17-year-olds, though there are three states that allow pre-registration for just 17-year-olds. That can be helpful in engaging and registering the newest eligible voters, who often lag behind their slightly older peers in electoral participation. We have found that having a pre-registration law in place in 2020 was associated with a 9-percentage-point increase in a county’s youth voting rate.
In some states, young people under the age of 18 can vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 by the next General Election day. This can be a promising way to engage youth in the democratic process earlier and to incentivize their participation in elections whose candidates they had a role in selecting.
In some states, election officials are legally obligated to distribute or make available voter registration forms to schools. While having forms in schools can support registration in high schools, this policy doesn’t necessarily include requirements to help students know that voter registration forms are available to them. The Growing Voters emphasizes the need to not only provide access to opportunities to register to vote, but also explicit support to learn about and take advantage of those opportunities, as well as building a culture that makes civic engagement opportunities attractive to youth.
Voter registration activities in schools are defined as electoral education and engagement activities (such as essay contests, student observation of polling sites, in-school candidate forums or debates, etc.). Such opportunities for deeper learning about elections can support students in connecting elections to their lives and can demystify the electoral process. Paired with accessible voter registration forms, these opportunities for additional learning and engagement can make for a more educational, less transactional approach to electoral engagement than merely having voter registration forms available in the library or central office.
In 44 states, youth under the age of 18 can serve as poll workers. State codes outline different approaches to which under-18 youth can serve: in some cases, teens as young as 14 can be appointed; in others, just 17-year-olds. Different states also use different titles for these young poll workers (e.g., “election official,” “assistant,” “intern,” “trainee,” “member of election board,” “youth ambassador,” “page”) and mandate different prerequisites (from none listed, to GPA parameters, to voter registration status, to parental consent, to training attendance, to signing an oath).
Depending on how they are written, policy and statute language can also impact how much discretion local stakeholders have in how they implement the state code. For instance, Minnesota Civic Youth, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, fielded a survey of 108 towns and counties in Minnesota which highlighted different ways local communities recruited, trained, paid, and worked with young election judges. A vast majority of the survey respondents were very happy with the quality of work student election judges produced.
Previous CIRCLE research has highlighted that there are myriad benefits to young people serving as poll workers, but that relatively few youth are enjoying this opportunity despite its availability in most states.
Some states directly state that schools should serve as locations for voter registration. In Texas, for instance, high school principals are obligated by state law to give students turning 18 during the next school year two opportunities per year to register to vote.
Registration is just one step in getting young people to the ballot box, and get-out-the-vote efforts often serve as a critical bridge between registration and actually voting. Some states require in-school GOTV activities in their statutes; in others, like Alaska, GOTV activities aren’t required but specifically mentioned as permissible under state law.
The Growing Voters paradigm highlights the need for youth themselves to be included as leaders in electoral engagement efforts. This policy implements such leadership in school settings, carving out space for students to lead efforts to get their peers registered to vote. For instance, Alaska has a youth vote ambassador program run by the division of elections, and Michigan allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be appointed to the board of elections.
Some state codes include relatively unique electoral education and engagement activities. For example, each of these efforts or policies is only mentioned in a handful of states’ statutes but may be potentially effective initiatives for others to consider adopting:
- In-school candidate forums or debates
- Student visits to/observations of polling sites
- Excused absences for student voters
- Annual election-themed essay contests
- In-school get-out-the-vote activities
While we can’t speak to the specific efficacy of these programs, these ideas might provide inspiration for other communities to test out or to prompt their own creative thinking on education and engagement strategies.
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.
Authors: The original scan was led by Sarah Andes and Abby Kiesa with support from the CIRCLE team, including research assistants Laurel Bliss and Jaya Khetarpal. The 2021 update was led by research assistants Ruby Belle Booth, Alex Foley, and Madeline McGee. The current update was spearheaded by Peter de Guzman with support from Ruby Belle Booth and Naraya Price.