WASHINGTON — With a presidential election just over five months away, candidates for any office will tell you that every vote matters.

Tufts University research estimates that just 50% of voters aged 18-29 participated in the 2020 election. Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., wants to make it easier for young people to participate in the political process.

“I want to — with the High School Empowerment Act — make sure that we are connecting them to the tools and mechanisms of civic participation early in their lives, so that they learn the importance of registering to vote,” said Butler in a recent interview with Spectrum News. 

What You Need To Know

  • Tufts University estimates just 50% of voters aged 18-29 participated in the 2020 election 

  • Sen. Laphonza Butler's bill, the High School Voter Empowerment Act, is hoping to engage young voters by registering them at their public high schools

  • If it became law, Butler's bill would require states to designate public high schools as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration act

Butler has spent a great deal of her efforts during her time in the Senate on youth issues, launching a Youth advisory council, conducting a banned book reading series on the Senate floor to bring awareness to book bans, and championing legislation like this.

“They are the ones that are going to have to live with the decisions that we make today. And I want to strengthen and empower their voices,” Butler explained.

Her bill, led by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., on the House side, would require states to designate public high schools as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration act, instruct schools to conduct voter registration drives for their students, allow high schools to work with state election officials to use voting machines to conduct student council or other student government elections, and direct the Secretary of Education to make grants to reimburse schools for the cost of carrying out a voter registration drive.

In California, like many states, anyone who comes to the department of motor vehicle services to register for a license is automatically registered to vote — unless the person opts out.

Butler says while these improvements help to get people registered and engaged in the civic process, it can still be better.

“Sometimes the unintended consequences of that automatic registration as we miss the opportunity to choose and to think about what it actually means to cast a ballot.”

During a press conference announcing the legislation, Samad Quaraishi, a 16-year-old student at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., encouraged federal lawmakers to take this legislation seriously.

“It’s talked about by presidents and senators and representatives. But how do we actually get the youth vote out? It starts with meaningful education on the ground in the public high schools. And this bill will allow just for that,” said Quaraishi. 

“It’s time for [the] federal government to show that the fight for civic engagement is a fight for every American. We have the systems and processes in place to act, so we must act. Doing any less so would be a disservice to the American youth and the principles that this country was founded upon.”

The legislation has received endorsements from California Common Cause, End Citizens United // Let America Vote Action Fund, the League of Women Voters, the Voters Initiative, NAACP, Stand Up America, ACLU, National Council of Negro Women and other organizations. 

The bill has seven co-sponsors in the Senate and 16 in the House, but all of them are Democrats. But without a Republican signing onto the legislation, it will be incredibly difficult to get this bill passed, especially in a Republican-controlled House.