Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout

The forthcoming article “Making Young Voters: The Impact of Preregistration on Youth Turnout” by John Holbein is summarized here:

Political scientists have long debated the extent to which voter turnout might be fostered by various electoral reforms, like early voting, online registration, and loosening of voter identification restrictions.  While it was once assumed that reducing legal obstacles to voting would inevitably lead to higher turnout, recent research finds that these electoral reforms have had little impact, and in some cases have actually depressed turnout levels.

An electoral reform that has nonetheless gained momentum in recent years is preregistration laws, whereby individuals younger than 18 are able to complete their registration application so that they are automatically added to the registration rolls once they come of age.  Preregistration laws have been implemented in a dozen states, debated in at least 19 other states in the last 5 years, and proposed in the U.S. Congress.

In our forthcoming article, we evaluate the impact of preregistration laws on youth turnout.  We argue that preregistration differs from many other electoral reforms in that it interacts with campaign context and supporting institutions.  That is, preregistration removes a critical obstacle to participation at precisely the right moment: during political campaigns when youth are more likely to be attentive to and interested in politics. Additionally, those eligible to preregister are typically still in school, where they are more likely to be exposed to in-school registration drives, civics curriculums, or other activities which complement preregistration’s effects.

We use two methods to evaluate the effectiveness of preregistration reforms.  In the first, we rely on the nationally representative Current Population Survey (CPS) to compare young voter turnout rates in states that implement preregistration to those that do not.  In the second, focusing on the state of Florida, we leverage a discontinuity in preregistration rates based on date of birth to estimate the effect of preregistration on future turnout among registrants in the Florida voter files.

Both methods indicate preregistration increases youth turnout, and noticeably so.  From the difference-in-difference models with the CPS, we find that preregistration laws increased turnout rates by 13%, with the lag model indicating a lower bound of 2%. From the regression discontinuity models using the Florida voter files, we find that, among those who comply by preregistering, voter turnout is about 8 percentage points higher than a comparable control group.  Even more striking, preregistration appears to mobilize Republicans and Democrats similarly.  Rather than just mobilizing a group of young liberals, preregistration helps both Republicans and Democrats bring active young people into their parties.

Despite this, preregistration faces a tenuous future. In 2013, North Carolina’s State Legislature abruptly, and controversially, repealed preregistration, claiming voter confusion. Our results challenge that perspective, suggesting instead that preregistration is an effective means to help young people become engaged citizens.

More broadly, our findings should be of interest not only to policymakers as they consider the potential electoral reforms, but also to scholars who might find possible lines of future research that marry the literature on campaign dynamics, education effects, and electoral institutions.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.