Line to register to vote and cast a ballot at the University of Michigan, Nov. 8, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
A bill in the Michigan Legislature would allow for 16-year-old Michiganders to become pre-registered to vote.
HB 4596, sponsored by state Rep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City), seeks to improve youth voter turnout by pre-registering at a younger age. Coffia said that 16 is an age when people begin to take on their first legal responsibilities, making it a fitting time to pre-register to become an elector.
“At 16 you get a driver’s license, and once you do, you’re deemed responsible enough to obey and be accountable to traffic laws as much as any other licensed driver,” Coffia said. “It’s a significant threshold.”
Similar legislation has been introduced in past sessions, but failed to gain traction. HB 4596 has not yet been voted on by the House Elections Committee.
The bill would not automatically register 16-year-olds to vote, but instead makes them eligible to be moved into the state’s qualified voter file upon reaching the age of 17 1/2. There are currently 15 states that allow pre-registration beginning at age 16. In Michigan, citizens can become volunteer poll workers beginning at age 16.
Coffia and others who testified in the House Elections Committee on May 23 support of HB 4569 noted that around 16 years of age, many high school students across Michigan are taking their first steps into democratic awareness through advanced government and civics classes. Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Northville), a former Advanced Placement Government teacher, said that he “loved every part” of the bill.
“When I was teaching I had AP Government students who were 17 1/2 and able to register at the school, and we would find a pretty long line,” Koleszar said.
Under Michigan’s current regulation, the earliest opportunity for voter registration is at age 17 1/2. Coffia said that in that time period, when a young person is completing high school and looking towards what’s next, registering to vote can get lost in the shuffle.
“When you turn 18, you’re busy getting ready to move, you’re registering for college or trade school, you’re starting military service – there’s so much going on,” Coffia said. “This will help them already have that registration taken care of and they’ll just be ready to go at age 18.”
Several voting rights organizations joined Coffia in testifying in the bill’s support at the hearing, including Promote the Vote and Voters Not Politicians. Nobody testified in opposition to the bill, although two people voiced opposition by submitting cards to the committee.
Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said in testimony that not only would the pre-registration allow for increased voter turnout, but could help with the administrative difficulties of registering new voters.
“We find that with the driver’s license process, you don’t end up going to the Secretary of State when you’re 18,” Swope said. “Because they get their driver’s license at 16, it usually doesn’t expire until they’re 21 or 22.”
The infrequency of visits to voter registration sites like the Secretary of State could be keeping some young people from registering, a problem Swope said he felt would be remedied by pre-registration of 16-year-olds. Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist said that the passage of the bill would also decrease the amount of clerical errors that can occur when people register to vote via voter drives or mail-in applications.
“As an election official, I like pre-registration even before automatic voter registration and even before online voter registration,” Siegrist said. “There’s a lot of list maintenance issues that come with people registering to vote on a form and mailing it in, or giving it to somebody on the street and having them drop it off in a local clerk’s office. Names get misspelled, driver’s license numbers get transfixed, and that leads to list issues.”
Coffia said that she hopes her bill would foster increased civic participation for young people that would last beyond their teen years.
“I have met so many young people who are really sort of coming alive to how much of the world is influenced by the democratic process at 16,” Coffia said. “And they really are looking for ways to become more involved, and so this feels like just another step to smooth that path for them to be all set to go at 18.”
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