Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. This editorial was written on behalf of the board by Star Tribune Opinion intern Noor Adwan, a 2023 graduate of the University of Minnesota.
Minnesota teens gained a much-needed incentive to engage in the electoral process when the Democracy for the People Act took effect on June 1.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds now may preregister to vote, and the measure passed by the Legislature this year can boost voter turnout by piquing teens' interest in participating in democracy. Minnesota joins 15 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister.
Teens may preregister using the same form an eligible voter would use to register, as Minnesota's certification of voter eligibility has been amended. Previously, prospective voters could preregister by certifying they would be 18 by the next Election Day. Now they can do so earlier by certifying they are at least 16 — and acknowledging that they still must be at least 18 to cast a vote.
DFL Rep. Emma Greenman of Minneapolis, who authored the bill, told an editorial writer her goal was to spur turnout among younger voters. She noted that those between 18 and 29 tend to cast ballots in much smaller numbers than older voters.
Getting young people on the books early might be one way to change that.
Greenman said that one of the primary indicators of whether you will vote is whether you're registered. Because 16- and 17-year-olds tend to live with their parents, they're more likely to have time to register in the first place.
However, "when you're 18, 19, 20, you've uprooted, maybe you got your first job," Greenman told an editorial writer. "That's a much more precarious time."
And, if young people think of themselves as voters before they can vote, the likelihood they will participate when they become eligible increases, state Secretary of State Steve Simon told an editorial writer. Then, once they vote in that first election, he said, they're much more likely to make voting a lifelong habit.
Greenman acknowledged that the policy won't be a silver bullet. But she hopes that preregistration and other measures that were passed this session, such as a stronger vote-by-mail option and automatic voter registration, could boost voter turnout statewide.
Some of Minnesota's more politically active teens are excited about the change.
Charlie Schmit, a 17-year-old who serves on the Minnesota Youth Council and worked on the Democracy for the People Act, has already taken advantage of the June 1 change.
"I actually got a note in the mail that I'm registered to vote, like, yesterday," he said. "It was really exciting."
Jake Wesson, a 17-year-old who serves on the Minneapolis Public Schools student leadership board and has served as an election judge, told an editorial writer he thought it was a great policy and "really important." His twin brother, Drew — who is also on the board and has also served as a judge — concurs. Both have plans to preregister.
But Simon stressed that the policy was also intended to benefit teens who might be intimidated by the idea of political involvement.
"[This is] geared not only to those who are self-selected and interested but maybe as much or more to those who don't feel that way," he told an editorial writer.
To those who might feel daunted by the prospect of becoming an active participant in democracy, Simon offered a few pieces of advice: First, voting is in your best interest. Second, not voting is more indicative of surrender than rebellion. Finally, if there are any contests on the ballot you feel unsure about, you can just leave them blank.
The Legislature's decision to grant soon-to-be-voters this opportunity is commendable.
The next step is to spread the word — an initiative that will likely begin in the classroom. Simon said his office plans to collaborate with various school groups and nonprofits to inform teens of the new preregistration option when classes resume in the fall.
Allowing teens to preregister legitimizes their interest in the electoral process — which, even if they've contributed in other ways, like serving as an election judge — remains largely forbidden to them until they turn 18.
"I feel like we're getting a growing space to engage," said Drew Barkman, a 17-year-old who's served as an election judge and worked to educate teens about the voter registration process. "Kids are able to get a lot more involved."
To register or preregister to vote, visit sos.mn.gov/elections-voting/register-to-vote/.