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Learning to vote

A bill that requires high school students to register to vote before graduation is the wrong approach.

February 16, 2007

IN A DEMOCRACY — a form of government that no one has improved on so far -- most citizens have the right to vote. And because democracy values freedom of choice over government coercion, they also have the right not to vote.

But state Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose) has introduced a bill in Sacramento, AB 183, that would require California high school students 18 and older to register to vote in order to receive their diploma. The civics lesson in this legislation eludes us.

We, like Coto, would love to see more young people register and vote. Amend that: We'd love to see more young people choose to register and vote. There's an important difference.

Coerced voter registration is as distant from democratic ideals as a coerced vote. And as counterproductive. If new adults see registering as a tiresome bureaucratic prerequisite instead of a great privilege, they are less likely, not more, to become enthusiastic, informed voters. And already harried public school staffs hardly need another batch of politician-generated paperwork.

The role of schools should remain educating students, not forcing them into actions that they aren't otherwise legally obliged to take. (The bill does allow students to opt out of the requirement, but it's unclear whether or how they would find out they have the choice.)

Let great teachers of government inspire students to learn about current events and eagerly anticipate their first voting day. If older male high school students aren't required to show proof of signing up for the Selective Service (an action that they're legally required to take within 30 days of their 18th birthday), why should they be forced to register to vote?

Graduation should be tied to learning. At this point, we'd be happy if more teenagers could just pass the high school exit exam.

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