Young primary voters will stay involved
By Adam Fogel
Published April 19th 2008 in Concord Monitor
As commentators and political scientists bemoan (or celebrate) the death of the political party, many people have no idea how much power parties actually still wield. Look no further than the current fiasco in the Democratic presidential nominating contest, where the national party stripped Florida and Michigan of their convention delegates for jumping ahead in the calendar. Nothing exemplifies party influence more than the use of super-delegates, where nearly 800 party insiders, undeterred by the will of the people, will decide the Democratic nominee. The muscle-bound party of yore is back, but it can use this power for good or ill.
Take, for example, the recent debate in the New Hampshire House over the constitutionality of allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 in time for the general election to vote in the corresponding primary.
While this debate may be good for the purpose of improving civic discourse, in practical terms, it's completely unnecessary. Having the Department of Justice and the state Supreme Court rule on the proposal's constitutionality is a waste of taxpayer dollars because there is an easier way: The parties can decide for themselves.
Since the primary process is a semi-private affair, parties have ample discretion in determining eligibility requirements in their respective contests.
Parties have the First Amendment's associational rights on their side, as enunciated in the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tashjian v. Connecticut. Justice Thurgood Marshall writes in the majority opinion, "The fact that the State has the power to regulate the time, place, and manner of elections does not justify, without more, the abridgment of fundamental rights, such as the right to vote or . . . the freedom of political association."
In Maryland this year, the State Board of Elections, at the advice of the attorney general's office, reversed the longstanding policy of 17-year-old primary voting. In a rare act of bipartisanship, the Maryland Republican and Democratic parties wrote a letter to the board, urging them to reconsider their decision on the basis of the parties' First Amendment rights. The attorney general agreed: The parties had the right to expand the franchise, even if it violated the state's interpretation of the Maryland Constitution. The board voted unanimously to reverse course and more than 12,000 eligible 17-year-olds registered to vote in the Feb. 12 primary.
New Hampshire's political parties have the same rights under the federal Constitution as their Maryland counterparts. Allowing these young people to participate in primary elections will encourage them to become lifelong participants in the political process. It is also an issue of basic fairness - if these young people can vote in the general election, they should have the right to decide who is on that general election ballot. The military currently allows 17-year-olds to join the armed services with parental consent, so these young Americans also deserve an opportunity to vote for their commander-in-chief in every stage of the process.
Maryland and New Hampshire would not be alone in allowing 17-year-old primary voting. Over a dozen other states already have the policy. Others, including Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, are considering implementing it in time for the next election cycle.
The time has come for the political parties of New Hampshire and across the country to come together and assert their rights, expand the franchise and realize the full promise of our democracy.
(Adam Fogel is the right to vote director at FairVote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit voting rights and election reform organization based in Washington, D.C. )