COLUMBUS - Lucas County high-school graduates will be handed voter registration forms at commencement this year along with their diplomas as part of a five-county pilot program targeting Ohio's youngest possible voters.
Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, said she hopes to take the program statewide in 2008, a presidential election year. But for now, the experiment will focus on about 250 public and private high schools in Lucas, Montgomery, Knox, Scioto, and Trumbull counties, a mix of urban and rural counties that Ms. Brunner said are often forgotten in a government focused on the three C's - Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.
She admitted that she picked Scioto in southern Ohio because it's Gov. Ted Strickland's home base.
"[Younger voters] probably have a bigger stake in voting than somebody who is 60 or 70 years old," she said. "This year in municipal elections, the people they're voting for now may become the future leaders of their state or even their nation. It really matters that they participate in every election that they can, because the votes they're making now may have a very lasting impact on the rest of their lives."
The mix of counties appears to favor Democratic registration. In the 2004 presidential election, Lucas, Montgomery, and Trumbull counties supported Democratic candidate John Kerry over Republican President George Bush, while the two much smaller, rural Knox and Scioto counties went with Mr. Bush.
"I was concerned that perhaps someone would say [I'm] pushing more heavily Democrat, but that really wasn't the intent here," said Ms. Brunner. "We wanted to reach areas that don't get the attention that they deserve."
Rep. Kevin DeWine (R., Fairborn), the Ohio Republican Party's new deputy chairman, said Ms. Brunner should try harder to create a more equalized mix of counties when it comes to partisan registration.
"I don't know if it was intentional, but I'm sorry that's how it ended up," he said. "What could have been a nice good-government initiative of getting young men and women interested in the process and voting is tainted by the very partisan overtone. If she needs help identifying the counties, I'll get out my pad and paper and look at the registration numbers."
Lindsey Berman, outreach director for the MTV-inspired youth registration program Rock the Vote, said exit polls from the 2006 general election showed younger voters were more likely to vote Democratic.
"Nearly six in 10 young voters chose the Democratic candidate," she said. "That's 6 percent higher than the general electorate. Young people are leaning to the left. But while they are voting that way, they're not identifying solely as Democrats. A large chunk is identifying as independents."
The cost for the secretary of state's pilot program for photocopied registration forms as well as mailing costs to high schools will cost taxpayers less than $1,500, said Ms. Brunner. A postscript to the accompanying letter also encourages students to serve as poll workers, part of a continuing effort to recruit more teenagers, even those not old enough to vote, to work the polls. The current average age of a poll worker is 72 years old.
Those who are still 17 on graduation day will still be able to register as long as they will turn 18 by the Nov. 6 general election. Ms. Brunner said she knows of no statistics indicating how many of Ohio's 18-year-olds do register and vote.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Tave Zelman said some teachers incorporate voter registration into civics classes now, but she hopes to incorporate efforts even more fully into the high-school curriculum.
- Jim Provance