With the state Senate’s passage of a bill that would eliminate high schools as designated voter registration sites, Wisconsin has unfortunately joined the ranks of states speeding ahead with measures that will make it more difficult for students to register and vote. The state Senate passed the bill on February 21, the same day that Wisconsin residents went to the polls for the first time with the state’s new photo ID law in place.
Wisconsin law currently requires that each high school work with local election officials to appoint at least one special registration deputy to help register eligible students and staff at that school. In addition, under current law, the principal of any private high school or any tribal school that operates high school grades in Wisconsin may request to do the same.
The opportunity for eligible students to register at their schools is particularly important in Wisconsin because the state does not offer pre-registration to students before they turn 18. By seeking to eliminate voter registration at high schools, the Wisconsin legislature is putting up additional hurdles to the registration of a student population that is already likely to be underserved. Without a visible voter registration presence in their schools, Wisconsin students might get a driver’s license at the age of 16, but not be offered the opportunity to register to vote until renewing their licenses four years later. In the interim, countless students could miss their opportunity to cast a ballot. Whatever may be the perceived administrative benefits of attempting to streamline voter registration in Wisconsin, they cannot outweigh the cost to be borne by students.
At a time of understandable skepticism on the part of young people about whether their voices can be heard over the roar of corporate money turned speech, we should be sending students the message that their participation in our democracy is as critical as ever. High schools are eminently appropriate institutions to teach students about the importance of civic participation. States should facilitate efforts by high schools to serve that important function rather than gut them in the service of administrative expediency.