Editor's Note: This story includes a correction
North Carolina is one of just five states that allows teenagers to "pre-register.” But, the state goes a step further: local election boards are required to hold voter registration drives in all public high schools. In Mecklenburg County alone, there are more than 5,600 teens pre-registered to vote.
At West Mecklenburg High School, student-body president Brodrick Montgomery is inspired to grab a bullhorn.
“If you are 16 or older, I encourage you guys to come and register to vote," Montgomery yells as students head into the cafeteria. "Today is the only day for you guys to register to vote. If you are 18, you really need to be over here registering to vote.”
Though he can’t vote until he turns 18, Montgomery is excited because he just registered to vote. He didn't know he could pre-register to vote as a 16-year-old.
Lacey Williams from the Latin American Coalition was at his school on behalf of the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections.
She says her group used to put out fliers with political messages on them at registration drives – like getting people to help pass the DREAM Act. She says the Coalition use to put out fliers at registration drives that encouraged students to join its youth advocacy group.
But lunch periods are so short and students ignored the fliers, so they don’t put them out anymore.
“People tend to come, they want to [register] quickly," Williams says. "They’re not really interested in the fliers, so that’s why we haven’t really been pushing LAC.”
There’s nothing on the table that says where the group is from, except for her badge. Dozens of students bend over to fill out forms on the table.
"We’re going to schools that have high a population of Latino youth, but that also means that there’s other people and we register them as well," Williams says. "We’re not advocating a party or a policy; we just want to make sure people are registered.”
Mecklenburg County’s elections board depends on groups like the Latin American Coalition and the League of Women Voters to fulfill a state law enacted three years ago that requires local election boards to have voter registration drives in all public high schools.
But Kristin Mavromatis of the Mecklenburg board says her office doesn’t have the staff to pre-register voters in all 28 CMS high schools. She says if it weren't for groups like the LAC scheduling visits to schools to register voters, they would have waited until schools called them directly to go out to the schools.
In neighboring Cabarrus County, there are only 10 public high schools. That’s only about one-third of the number of schools Mecklenburg County has. Last year, the county’s election board staff held voter registration drives at all 10 high schools. It was a lot of work, but they registered about 500 teens.
This year, they’re taking a bit of a shortcut. They’ll be hosting a large open house at one high school and will invite students and parents to attend.
A non-partisan civics group, Democracy North Carolina, released figures this week that show that 60,000 youth who "pre-registered" in the state will be eligible to vote this November. About 30 percent identify as Democrat, 30 percent as Republican and nearly 40 percent refused to identify with any party.
The high number of unaffiliated voters doesn’t surprise Williams. In her experience, most teens skip that section of the form because it’s optional. As a result, they’re automatically registered as “unaffiliated.”
“If we can catch them now and instill a value of voting, no matter who they’re voting for, the community itself will have more political power," Williams says.
At West Mecklenburg High School, her goal was getting 100 students pre-registered, but she ended up with 200.