Social Studies

Most States Require Schools to Help Register Young Voters. Many Fail to Do It

By Sarah Schwartz — October 07, 2022 5 min read
Voter registration application document with hand holding pen
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Clarification: This story has been updated to provide additional information about states’ preregistration requirements for youth under 18.

Most states have recruited schools into the effort to raise youth voter turnout: More than half allow or require high schools to provide voter registration forms or do outreach to students.

But a new analysis finds that not all districts comply with these policies—and that the districts that don’t meet their states’ requirements have lower levels of young people registered to vote.

The report is a joint study from the Fair Elections Center, a voting rights organization, and The Civics Center, an advocacy group that works on youth voter registration.

The groups examined a sample of districts in Georgia and North Carolina, two states that require schools to provide students with voter registration forms. Georgia also requires schools to give students an opportunity to register to vote at school.

But the report’s authors found that compliance with these laws varied widely. Some of the district leaders the researchers contacted didn’t know the requirements even existed, said Vicki Shapiro, the director of special initiatives for The Civics Center, and one of the authors of the report.

School systems that did provide these opportunities to students, though, saw better outcomes: Districts in the sample that fully complied with the law had higher rates of eligible students registered than districts that didn’t follow these mandates.

Over the past few years, more states have changed their voting laws to allow for earlier preregistration. In all but one state, high school students can register to vote before they turn 18—though in some states, it’s required that students be 18 by the next election in order to register. As Education Week has reported, these efforts are intended to grow the number of young voters, closing the generational gap that exists at the polls.

But just because students are able to register to vote doesn’t mean they know how to begin that process, Shapiro said. Survey data from the Knight Foundation found that 18-24-year-olds were more likely than nonvoters of all ages to say that they hadn’t registered because it was too complicated.

The past few years have added additional hurdles: An analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice finds that, since 2021, lawmakers have passed measures that restrict access to voting in 21 states. In advance of the midterm elections next month, voter registration among 18- and 19-year-olds is down compared with November 2018.

Schools are ideal places to spread awareness of the process and give young voters accurate information, said Mike Burns, national director for Campus Vote Project at the Fair Elections Center.

Social studies classes offer built-in opportunities to educate kids about the voting process, and schools reach a wide swath of youth in a community compared with other registration touchpoints, like motor vehicle departments—not all teenagers will get a driver’s license.

But educators say there’s a lack of infrastructure to make these registration laws as effective as they could be.

In Texas, for example, the state requires that high school principals provide voter registration cards to eligible students. But there’s generally not much guidance provided to principals about how to get these programs off the ground, said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, the coordinator for community and civic engagement in the Fort Bend school district.

“There’s no system to support it, and that’s commonplace” for mandates handed down to K-12 schools, she said.

Schools need support for successful voter registration initiatives, educators say

To conduct this analysis, the report’s authors selected a sample of districts that would be representative of each state’s geographic diversity—including urban, rural, and suburban school systems—and racial diversity. They filed public records requests with the districts for their voter registration plans and cross-referenced those with publicly available voter registration files for the geographic area served by each district.

They found that districts that were in compliance with their state’s law were more likely to have higher percentages of registered youth voters. In Georgia, for example, most districts in the sample that had a youth voter registration plan had 18-year-olds’ registration rates hovering around 40 percent. Districts that had no plan trended about 10 to 20 percentage points lower.

Shapiro analyzed whether other factors, like median household income or spending per pupil, could have accounted for some of these differences. There was a slight correlation with median household income in North Carolina districts, but overall, “the biggest indicator [for registration trends] was district leadership on this issue,” Shapiro said.

In many states—including Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—the responsibility to make voter registration forms available rests with individual schools. Districts aren’t required to have a centralized plan—but doing so can make a big difference, said Olainu-Alade.

When she started working on youth voter registration issues in the district in 2016, she looked up high schools in Fort Bend on a map created by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which tracked compliance with the state law. (The project has since been discontinued, but in 2019, it found that only 34 percent of counties met state requirements to provide voter registration cards.)

“I remember coming across that map and freaking out,” Olainu-Alade said, because only a few of the district’s 11 campuses were in compliance.

Since then, she’s created a centralized system for recording school-level voter registration plans, started an annual training for principals, and developed a districtwide messaging campaign. But not every Texas school district has a staff position like hers—and in many cases, ensuring schools are following the law falls to a district’s social studies coordinator as an extra duty, Olainu-Alade said.

More awareness and support for schools could likely boost registration rates through these initiatives, said Burns, of the Fair Elections Center. “The solution is there in front of us; we’re just not investing in it.”

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