The following story is an excerpt from The Hub’s State of Our Communities project, taking a close look at the progress of West Virginia’s community development sector and key indicators relating to civic engagement, physical activity and health, innovation and education, food and farm economy, young professionals, tourism and recreation, arts and crafts economy, and environment and infrastructure.
Stay tuned for the launch of StateofOurCommunities.org in September 2016.
In the 2012 general election, West Virginians aged 18-to-24 voted at a rate of 23 percent, the worst voting record of that age group in the country.
In the 2014 midterm elections, West Virginia failed to turnout even half of its registered voters. Across the United States in 2014, youth voter registration and turnout rates were the lowest ever recorded in a federal election.
And it wasn’t just young voters who shirked their civic duty. A mere 33.9 percent of registered voters made their voice heard in 2014. Turnout hadn’t been that low since 1942.
(There are early signs that voter turnout will be higher for the 2016 general election. Almost 70,000 West Virginians between the ages of 17 and 29 voted in the West Virginia Democratic and Republican primaries this year, a notable increase on previous years.)
In September 2015, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant rolled out an online voter registration system, which in other states has been successful in increasing voter registration and turnout.
As of June 2016, 31 states plus the District of Columbia had instituted online voter registration systems. Seven other states have passed legislation allowing online voter registration but were still working on implementation.
In it’s first 10 months, West Virginia’s online voter registration system registered 20,990 new voters.
Nearly 60 percent of those new voters were under 40. Eighteen-year-olds alone accounted for 1,154 of the online registrations, the highest percentage (5.5 percent) of any age group to register online. The online voter registration system meets young people where they are on a regular basis – the internet.
Registering young voters in school, online
Inspire West Virginia is a nonpartisan organization with a mission of encouraging young people to vote and be engaged in their community.
Inspire West Virginia is the most successful of the six state Inspire chapters across America. The three Charleston-based Inspire West Virginia staff members, with the help of 67 Inspire student leaders from 25 schools across the state, registered 2,600 new voters in the 2015-2016 school year, the most of any Inspire chapter in the nation.
Secretary Tennant has been working closely with Inspire West Virginia in recent years to help 17 and 18 year olds register to vote.
The new online voter registration system will be instrumental in registering students to vote in the 2016-2017 school year.
It was actually in a school – Nitro High School – that Secretary Tennant unveiled the online system in September 2015. Nitro was one of 11 schools to receive the Randolph Jennings Award, given by the Secretary’s office to schools that register 100 percent of their graduating senior class to vote. The award is aptly named for the U.S. Senator from West Virginia, Randolph Jennings, who in the early 1970s was a lead advocate for the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.
In 2016 student leaders will begin utilizing the new online registration system to register fellow students via voter drives at their schools, carrying around tablets, phones and laptops to register students rather than the paper mailing cards they had used up until now.
Ahead of the November 8 election, people are reminded that West Virginia law requires voters to register 21 days before the election takes place, so you must be registered by October 18, 2016 in order to cast your vote. Early voting will begin October 26 and run through November 5.
Other resources and handy links
• To learn more about Inspire WV, visit their website: www.inspireus-wv.org
• Access the State of West Virginia’s online voting registration system: ovr.sos.wv.gov/Register
• If you’re interested in getting involved in voter mobilization efforts within your own community, contact your regional Our Children Our Future coordinator: www.ocofwv.org/contact-us/