CAPITAL REGION — Across the country last weekend, hundreds of thousands of students rallied in the streets and parks, calling for action in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre.
One of the actions the students were repeatedly urged to take: registering to vote.
Whether it’s a response to the Florida attack that left 17 students dead or other factors — and there could be many others — more 17- and 18-year-olds are registering this year with local county boards of election than registered last year.
“There is definitely an increased interest from students,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, which lobbies for increased voting access and often helps with registration drives. “Our goal is to have every student registered to vote before they graduate from high school.”
The league was registering students last weekend at the massive rallies in Washington, D.C., and New York City, though Bierman acknowledged those registrations may not be recorded yet with local election boards.
Local election officials can’t say the registration boost is tied to student activism, but they aren’t ruling it out, either.
Under New York state law, 17-year-olds who are U.S. citizens can register to vote in the year they will turn 18, as long as they have a stable address and no felony convictions. They can’t actually vote until after their 18th birthday. That means a 17-year-old can register now if they will be 18 and plan to vote in the November election.
In Schenectady County, there were 72 young first-time registrants a year ago, and 94 so far this year, a 30 percent increase. The month of February saw 46 young people register, compared with 17 the previous year. The Parkland shootings occurred on Feb. 14, and student activism around the gun issue started within days of the attack.
“There’s obviously a heightened awareness,” said Darlene Harris, Schenectady County’s Republican commissioner. “Maybe you’ll see a registration increase in the next few months.”
Saratoga County registered 148 people in the 17- or 18-year-old range through the first three months of 2017, while 195 have registered so far this year.
“There is a spike,” said Bill Fruci, Saratoga County’s Democratic election commissioner. “It could be Parkland; it could be the political environment. On the form, they don’t tell us why they register. They just register.”
The state Board of Elections said 5,901 17-years-olds had registered to vote as of March 25, but they couldn’t provide comparable information from last year. Board spokesman John Conklin noted that 2018 will have the governor, a U.S. Senate seat and all state Legislature and House of Representative seats up for election, so interest would typically be higher than it would be in an off-year, like 2017.
Many high schools have historically held registration drives for graduating seniors in the spring, but overall, election officials said, registration spikes more typically occur as an election deadline approaches. In most of the Capital Region there are no elections before the federal primary in late June.
“Certainly, closer to the deadline you see an increase, and we’re not near a deadline, so it’s an interesting pattern we’re seeing,” said Amy Hild, Schenectady’s Democratic commissioner.
“It’s quite a few more. Maybe the activism is getting more people registered,” said Schoharie Deputy Election Commissioner Rich Schultes, who said first-time registrations increased from 115 as of this time last year to 201 this year.
Local officials said many of the new registrations are coming through the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which has accepted online voter registrations since 2012 but simplified the process in October 2016.
Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is up for re-election and touting efforts to make voting easier, announced that 1 million voters have registered through the DMV since 2012, including 450,000 first-time voters.
Montgomery County has registered 40 students so far this year, said Election Commissioner Terry Bieniek, though he couldn’t provide a 2017 breakdown.
“I do see that they want to get involved,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re there because of the marches and stuff, if that’s having effect.”
The Fulton County Board of Elections had 17 student-age voters register in the first three months of 2017 and 24 so far in 2018. A clerk there said vote registration packages are currently going out to high schools.
Bierman said the League of Women Voters has active local chapters that register students in Saratoga and Schenectady counties and works at the state level to make sure students see how government policies are made.
“You can get them registered, but then you have to get them to participate,” Bierman said. “We actually don’t do a bad job with registration, but then when it comes to participation, New York ranks 42nd or 43rd. Maybe this new activism will get more to participate.”
The league worked hard in Albany to build support for early voting in New York state — something Cuomo proposed and pushed for this year, but which has been dropped from ongoing budget negotiations. That plan is dead, said Jennifer Wilson, policy director for the League of Women Voters, dooming an effort that would have made voting easier.
Wilson said the league is pleased there’s more interest in registering.
“It’s exciting that kids are interested now, because it was like pulling teeth before,” Wilson said. “I think with having the internet and other outlets where they can see there are others out there, kids are getting more involved now.”
For those interested, most high schools will have voter registration programs this spring, and people can also reach out to their county board of election or register on the DMV website if they have a license or non-driver ID.