Reversal on teen voting likely
State AG recommends allowing some age 17 to vote in Feb. primary


By Brent Jones
Published December 20th 2007 in The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland State Board of Elections is expected to reverse a recent policy change that would prevent 17-year-olds from voting in February's primary election.

The attorney general's office released an opinion yesterday recommending that 17-year-olds be allowed to vote in the primary if they will be age 18 by the time of the general election. As a result, the board is likely to vote at its meeting today to allow those teens to participate in the election, a top state elections official said.

High school students around the state said they were relieved to hear of the expected reversal. They said they were looking forward to helping choose the nominees for president but were dismayed when they received letters this summer saying they could not vote.

"As a 17-year-old, the only way for my voice to be heard is through the primary. I don't have any money to donate or any political power," said Sarah Martin, a senior at Northern High School in Calvert County who is deciding whom to support in the Republican primary. "This will probably be one of the biggest, closest primaries in maybe my entire lifetime."

Until this year, 17-year-olds had been allowed to vote in primaries for decades. But a December 2006 memorandum from the attorney general's office said the language of a Court of Appeals decision striking down an early-voting statute suggested that the practice was illegal.

Acting on that letter, the state Board of Elections voted this summer to prohibit 17-year-olds from voting in primary elections.

Deputy Elections Administrator Ross K. Goldstein said he expects the board to follow the revised opinion when the issue is discussed at this afternoon's public meeting in Annapolis.

In June, the panel sent letters to about 3,600 17-year-olds who had registered to vote, saying they could not participate in the primary. Goldstein said the board will probably send follow-up letters.

"They're in the system. Those people will be sent documentation to clarify the situation," Goldstein said.

The state Democratic and Republican parties advocated for the 17-year-olds, saying the board's previous decision violated the teens' constitutional rights and Maryland election law.

Both parties sent letters to the Board of Elections this week asking that the minors be allowed to vote.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and a constitutional law professor, said he asked the attorney general's office to review the ruling.

In a reply to Raskin yesterday, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said, "It is my view that the conflict between the Maryland constitutional provision and the First Amendment rights now asserted by the parties requires that the [state Board of Elections] permit 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the next general election to vote in the parties' primary election."

Maryland's primary is scheduled for Feb. 12.

"It's a great day to be 17 in Maryland," Raskin said. "The attorney general did the right thing. It's clear the political parties have the right to decide who gets to participate in primaries under the First Amendment."

The board and both parties say more than 50,000 Marylanders will be 17 during the primary and 18 by the time of the general election in November. The deadline for new voters to register is Jan. 22. About 2,300 17-year-olds voted in the 2004 primaries.

Raskin said the focus now should be on registering students.

Officials from FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Takoma Park, say they will work with high school administrators and principals statewide to arrange voter-registration drives in the schools.

"The most important thing is how much time has been lost because of all this confusion and how many young people may have been confused and aren't on voting rolls," said Adam Fogel, the organization's director. "We're hoping the state takes action to correct the mistake."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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