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One Utah lawmaker wants to boost democratic participation by registering would-be voters while they're still in high school.
Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, said he is working on a bill to allow 16 and 17-year-old Utahns to complete their voter registrations early as part of an enhanced focus on civic education in Utah's schools.
"Obviously, you're still not able to vote until you're 18, but at least you get your registration in the system," he said.
Under Cox's proposed legislation, underage Utahns could submit a typical registration form, but their voter status would be left pending until their 18h birthday.
The proposal is one of several civic-minded pieces of legislation that lawmakers are shopping ahead of the 2015 legislative session.
Earlier this month, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, announced that they intend to sponsor legislation requiring Utah high school students to pass a U.S. citizenship test prior to graduation.
Cox believes his measure would complement other lawmakers' renewed push for civics.
The Snow College history professor said state leaders' recent focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, has come at the expense of other important areas of public education. He regularly administers citizenship tests to his students.
"It's embarrassing how little civic knowledge some students have," he said.
While early registration of young voters would present some paperwork challenges, state and county election officials said Monday they were open to the change.
State Elections Director Mark Thomas said Cox's proposal would not be overly disruptive because current practice already allows 17-year-olds to register if their birthday falls before the November election.
Utah law currently doesn't specify when a person is able to register to vote, Thomas said, but Cox's bill could clarify state statute and provide for a more proactive outreach to Utah's high school population.
"There's nothing that says you can't register," Thomas said. "You just can't vote."
The Salt Lake County Clerk's Office already collects voter information from 16 and 17-year-olds as part of their registrations for driver licenses, county elections director Rozan Mitchell said.
Clerks had to store the physical forms in the past, but changes to the state's computer system allows for a person's registration to be completed and filed in advance of their 18th birthday.
"It just holds them in a not-eligible status," Michell said.
She said underage voters use the same registration forms as adults and are subject to the same identification requirements. If Cox's bill were to be made law, Mitchell said she didn't anticipate any problems with implementation.
"As far as we're concerned, it wouldn't require anything different," she said.
Cox believes easing America's two-step voting process registration first, then travel to the ballot box for young Utah voters could help set a lifetime voting habit.
While overall U.S. voter participation rates are low, he said, rates are relatively higher among registered voters.
High school students are often told about the importance of voting and participating in the government process, he said. But by the time they turn 18, there are fewer reminders about the need to register.
"It's not a silver bullet or anything like that, but if you put it together with a purposeful high school civics program or civic experience, I think it would lead to a lifetime commitment to political engagement," Cox said. "Those who are involved at a younger age tend to maintain that involvement throughout their lives as far as voting goes."
He acknowledged one potential hiccup: High school students commonly move after graduating, making their brand-new voter registration's out-of-date. Cox believes those clerical details can be addressed on election day with provisional ballots.
"I don't think it's earth-shattering, but if we see modest improvements in voter access, I believe the bill is worth the effort," Cox said.
The Ephraim Republican said partisanship has nothing to do with his initiative. While demographic studies suggest younger voters are more liberal, Cox said, the younger generation is also the one that will suffer the consequences of the nation's ballooning debt.
"If more young voters were participating, I think we'd finally get our fiscal house in order," he said. "So I don't think Democrats have a monopoly on young voters by any means."