The United States Census Bureau reports that Americans aged 18-24 have the lowest voter registration rate of any age group. Only 53.6% of U.S. citizens in that age group were registered to vote as of November 2012. By contrast, more than 79% of citizens aged 65 and older were registered. These disparate numbers raise questions about the health of our nation’s civic culture and the fairness of our elections, a concern so real it made it into an episode of The West Wing. Between its implementation in 2010 and its repeal in 2013, a North Carolinaelection law attempted to mitigate the age-registration gap by allowing otherwise qualified 16 and 17-year olds to pre-register to vote. Upon turning eighteen, individuals who had pre-registered would be automatically registered to vote following verification of their address. According to Common Cause North Carolina, an estimated 160,000 of the state’s teenagers who pre-registered were able to vote in the 2012 election. The North Carolina election law was unique in requiring county election officials to hold voter registration drives on high school campuses.
Twenty-two states currently have a form of voter pre-registration. And despite the change in North Carolina, the trend in these types of laws has not been uniformly towards greater restriction; Colorado adopted pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds in May 2013. No states allow citizens younger than sixteen to pre-register. Texas only allows pre-registration by citizens older than seventeen years and ten months.
While state voter registration practices have been the subject of major litigation, such as 2013’s Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Inter-Tribal Council, which struck down Arizona’s statute requiring proof-of-citizenship in order to register, it is far from obvious on what grounds supporters of the prior North Carolina law could seek a judicial remedy. States have broaddiscretion over the details of election administration under Article 1 Section 4 of the United States Constitution. That section states that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”