How US voter preregistration increases youth turnout and boosts higher education spending.

Older people vote more frequently than the young. In the 2016 US presidential election, less than half of people aged 18-29 cast their ballot, compared with more than two thirds of people aged 45+.

Part of the problem is the US’ peculiar two-step voting process. Unlike many other countries, US citizens cannot go straight to the polling station on Election Day. They must first register either online or in person, in some states as much as a month before the election.

Voter registration is a hassle, especially for young people who have never voted before and may not be familiar with the process and deadlines involved. To make it easier, some states have introduced preregistration schemes, which allow citizens under 18 to register at convenient locations such as schools, college campuses, and motor vehicle bureaus. By doing so, they will automatically be able to vote once they turn 18.

A bipartisan effort turned sour

In a new paper, we study the impact of preregistration on young voter turnout and public budgets. Hawaii introduced the preregistration scheme as early as 1993, and it was subsequently rolled out in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It was a bipartisan effort. Among the states that introduced it, eight had a Republican Governor, and seven had a Democratic one.

Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts summarized its aim in 2004: “People need to exercise their right to vote. Unfortunately, young people consistently fail to turn out to the polls on voting day (…). It is in the best interests of the country to make it as easy as possible for the youth of our nation to go to the polls for the first time.”

Together with preregistration, some states also introduced bills to promote voter education programs and increase civic engagement amongst the young. In effect, preregistration may help the young get better informed about political issues, and encourage them to be politically active beyond just voting.

After it became clear that young voters favored the democrats, some republican controlled states have tried to roll back preregistration. North Carolina successfully did so in 2013. In 2016, 15 states introduced new restrictive voting requirements such as voter ID laws. This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting.

When more young people vote, states spend more on education

Voting is the most effective way to influence government decision-making. When there is a predominance of older voters, governments spend more on pensions and health care (which benefit the old), and less on education (which benefits the young). Young people need representation to ensure the government is responsive to their interests.

On average, we find that more than 20 000 additional young voters turn out in every election in each state with voter preregistration. That is 20 000 young people who otherwise would have been without a political voice.

It does not stop there however, we also find that an increase in young voters causes an increase in higher education spending. For every 1000 additional young voters, states on average increased education spending by around $1.25 per capita.

This may not sounds like much, but it adds up because states have millions of inhabitants. On average, the states that have approved preregistration have a population of around 6.8 million. This translates to an increase in higher education spending of more than $8.5 million – for each 1000 additional young voters.

Source: Bertocchi, Graziella, Arcangelo Dimico, Francesco Lancia, and Alessia Russo. 2020. "Youth Enfranchisement, Political Responsiveness, and Education Expenditure: Evidence from the US." American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 12 (3): 76-106.

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