By Michael Aubele
Published May 10th 2008 in Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Students from three high schools in the Pittsburgh region told a state House committee on Friday that 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in Pennsylvania's primaries provided they turn 18 by the general election.
"In an age in which primary election turnout is usually around 25 percent, a measure to allow more young people to vote would be a welcome aid to our rather deplorable rate of civic participation," Fox Chapel Area High School senior Luke Secosky testified.
Students from Fox Chapel Area were joined by others from Monaca and Mt. Lebanon high schools and members of special interest groups who said they favor the idea.
The event at Fox Chapel Area High School was the third and final hearing planned by the House State Government Committee, which is considering legislation that would permit what the students are endorsing.
The previous hearings were held in the eastern part of the state.
State Rep. Richard Grucela, D-Northampton, has introduced H.B. 520, which would offer 17-year-olds the right to vote in the primaries if they will turn 18 by that year's general election.
The practice has been adopted by 18 other states or state parties, according to testimony from Adam Fogle, an official with FairVote, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization based in Maryland.
According to several who testified, the change would add from 100,000 to 120,000 voters.
State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, called the issue "a serious problem" and said he hadn't considered the change until a group of students from Fox Chapel Area High School lobbied him to support their cause.
Dermody said he had been unaware of Grucela's proposed legislation and decided to push for its approval given the interest in his district.
"The students out here sort of put this on the radar screen," Grucela said.
In addition to calling on state officials to pass the legislation, the students tried to dispel what they said are negative rumors about the effect the change might have.
Tom Chidiac, a Mt. Lebanon High School senior, and Na'Shaya Gilliam, a senior at Monaca High School, told the committee that their research has shown that states that have adopted the change haven't experienced problems.
"None of these states have seen any major issues or have any regrets about their decision," Gilliam testified. "Rather, they have seen many positive effects."
Chidiac testified that the change has energized the political spirit in the youth in those other states.
He told the committee, "H.B. 520 will only help to strengthen our democratic process through the infusion of young energy and patriotic spirit."
Eric Reidy, a Mt. Lebanon High School senior, testified that the change would not benefit one party over another.
"The research I have done on this issue has shown that this is a bipartisan effort by the youth of Pennsylvania to bring about change that we see as universally advantageous," he told the committee.
Most of the students who testified said they are Democrats but Julia Hazlet, a Fox Chapel Area High School senior, said she plans to change her registration to Republican. All of the students who testified were 18 at the time of the April 22 primary.
The students testified that they don't believe the change would precipitate the voting age dropping lower.
"This bill only provides for 17-year-olds to vote in a very specific instance, fixing the problem at hand, but not leaving the issue open-ended," Reidy testified.
None of the testimony argued against the proposed change. Grucela mentioned only one piece of negative testimony during the series of hearings, that of a 17-year-old student who said he didn't think people his age were mature enough to vote.
Fox Chapel Area High School seniors Rebecca Durr and Kate Roberts, who did not testify, said they don't believe maturity is an issue because those affected by the change would be able to vote in the general election roughly six months after the primary.
Hazlet told the committee that the issue is a simple one: "If you are old enough to vote in the general election, then you should be able to participate in the nomination process."Michael Aubele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-4673