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Legislature votes to let teens register early

The Rhode Island General Assembly has voted to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote.

Bills to change registration law have passed in both the Senate and House, and once both bodies sign off on reconciled legislation, the measure will go to Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 for his signature.

In 2007 and 2008, Carcieri vetoed bills similar to the one currently on the table, but his office could not be reached for comment. In the past, the governor has said the law would prevent the state from keeping accurate voter registration rolls and preventing voter fraud.

Currently, citizens must be 18 years old by the next election in order to register.

Information for pre-registered teens would be entered into state voter rolls with the designation "pending," and they would automatically achieve voting status on their 18th birthday, said Fair Vote Rhode Island Director Matt Sledge '08.

"They go through the same controls as anyone else who registers," Sledge said.

Founded in 1992, Fair Vote RI is a volunteer organization concerned with improving the election process. Sledge said it has been advocating for this legislation for the past two years.

"It's good public policy to get young people involved as early as possible in the democratic process," Sledge said. A benefit of the bill, he said, is that it will "close the registry gap between young voters and the rest of the population."

In the 2004 election, less than 60 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds registered to vote, but 81 percent of those young people who registered turned out to vote, according to Fair Vote RI.

"There is no universal registration in this country, so many young people fall through the cracks," Sledge said.

Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis has also endorsed the bill. His platform promotes voter rights with the inclusion of an "aggressive high school registration program," said spokesperson Chris Barnett. "We are capitalizing on (high school voters') interest to make it easier for them to make their voices heard in the voting booth."

State Senator Rhoda Perry P'91, who sponsored the Senate bill, said the change would get more people involved in the civic process.

"The problem with our bill is that the governor vetoes it," Perry said. But with greater support in the General Assembly, she said, the legislature will be able to override a veto. She said legislators are planning early for a veto and want the leadership to agree to an override.

Sledge said the assembly may be able to override a veto this year, since "the margin just keeps growing and growing."

A vote of three-fifths of the legislature would be required to override a possible veto. The House passed its version of the bill by a vote of 56 to 10, and the Senate voted 32 to 2 in favor of its version.


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