Teachable Instant: Automatic Voter Registration

In this brief activity, students take a quick quiz on voter access, then discuss the debate over this issue, including Hillary Clinton's recent proposal to make voter registration automatic.   

Tell students that on June 4, 2015, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered a major speech advocating the expansion of voter access. Among other policy changes, Clinton called for automatic voter registration at age 18. (See C-Span video of Clinton's full talk at Texas Southern University; her remarks on voting rights begin at about 26 minutes.)  

Currently, it is up to each individual to take the active step of registering. Only the state of Oregon registers voters automatically, when they get a drivers' license. Though there are constitutional provisions about who is eligible to vote, it is up to the states to decide most of the rules and procedures about voting.

Quiz: Voting facts

Have your students take this quiz on voting facts:

True or False?

1) The minimum age for voting in the United States is 18 years.

2) In Montana, voting in state elections is mandatory.

3) The states with the highest African-American and Hispanic populations have all enacted voter restrictions since 2008.

4) People in prison are prohibited from voting in the U.S.


1) False:  It is up to the individual states. 19 states allow 17-year-olds to vote in party primaries if they will turn 18 before the general election. And Tacoma Park, Maryland, allows 16-year-olds to vote in local elections.

2) False: Not only do no states require voting, there are no states that even require people to register to vote.

3) Not quite true (but close):  According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 7 of the 11 states with the most African-Americans have new voting restrictions and 9 of the 12 states with the highest Hispanic populations have new restrictions.

4) False: Two states (Maine and Vermont) allow prisoners to vote.



Share with students some of all of the information below.

On March 23, 1971, 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote in the United States. That right was granted by the 26th amendment to the Constitution (ratified in only three months, a record short time). Until then, the voting age had been 21.  There was strong pressure to lower the voting age because so many young people were being asked (or forced) to go to war in Vietnam,  yet did not have the right to vote.

Though Americans can begin voting at 18, mostly they don't. People in the 18-24 age bracket are the least likely to vote of all age categories. Young people are consistently about 30 percent less likely to vote than their grandparents. Even in the 2008 election, in which Barack Obama's campaign generated an unusual level of excitement in young people, only 44 percent of young people voted.

Current context

The debate over access to voting has become a partisan issue, with the Democratic Party advocating looser rules for voting and the Republican Party successfully advocating tighter restrictions.

In the last five years, 22 states (almost all with Republican majority legislatures) have passed laws restricting access to voting. These restrictions include shortening the time allowed for early voting, stricter rules for voter registration drives, eliminating election day registration,  and requiring specific kinds of identification for voting. Democrats charge that the restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and young people, groups that tend to vote Democratic. Republicans insist that the tighter rules for voting are necessary to prevent voter fraud, though such fraud is extremely rare.

For discussion

  • Is greater participation in elections necessarily a good thing? Should the United States (or individual states) take steps to increase participation?
  • Should legislation on voting rights and access be left  to each state or should the rules be national?
  • At what age should people be allowed to vote in elections?
  • In the countries with the highest rate of voter participation, voting is compulsory. Some 22 countries require citizens to vote, including Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and Belgium.  Should the United States make voting mandatory?
  • What are the pros and cons of automatically registering people to vote when they reach the age of 18?
  • Do you plan to vote once you reach voting age? Why or why not?