Maryland primaries open to 17-year-olds

By Brian Witte
Published December 20th 2007 in The Washington Times
The state Democratic and Republican parties have a First Amendment right to let 17-year-olds participate in the Maryland primary if they will be of voting age in time for the general election, according to an opinion by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

Mr. Gansler responded yesterday to questions from Sen. Jamin B. Raskin, Montgomery Democrat, about an opinion from Mr. Gansler's office relating to a Court of Appeals ruling. Mr. Gansler initially advised the Maryland State Board of Elections that a ruling by the state's highest court last December meant that residents could not vote in the primary unless they were 18 or older.

Although Mr. Gansler affirmed that earlier opinion, he said that First Amendment rights recently asserted by the two major parties require the board to let 17-year-olds vote in Maryland's Feb. 12 primary if they will be 18 by the next general election.

Mr. Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University, said the issue was potentially "a blessing in disguise, highlighting and focusing our attention on registering all eligible 17-year-olds" for the primary.

"With this advisory letter, there should be no remaining legal obstacle to keep the State Board of Elections from accepting the registration of any eligible 17-year-old voters and getting them on the voter rolls" in time for the primary, Mr. Raskin said.

Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for the state's elections board, said it's fairly clear that the board needs to follow Mr. Gansler's legal advice. However, he noted that the board will be running up against a tough time frame, because the voting registration deadline is Jan. 22. The board is scheduled to meet today to discuss Mr. Gansler's opinion and how the board could adjust to administrative changes.

There are roughly 3,600 people who will be 17 during the primary and 18 by the time of the general election who have registered to vote. Democrats and Republicans have estimated that there are about 50,000 potential voters in that age range.

Until recently, the two parties simply followed the primary system established by state law, which allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turned 18 by the time of the general election. The board planned to change that because of the court ruling.

The Supreme Court has held that political parties have a First Amendment right of association to determine who will participate in selecting the party's candidates, Mr. Gansler pointed out.

"The exclusion of those individuals from the primary undeniably burdens the associational rights of Maryland's political parties," Mr. Gansler wrote.

Michael Cryor, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, cheered the opinion.

"This is a great day for all young voters in Maryland," Mr. Cryor said. "The Democratic Party is going to work hard to make sure all our young people know their rights under the law, get registered to vote if eligible and then get to the polls in February.

Jim Pelura, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said the state Republican Party has argued that any decision to keep once-eligible 17-year-olds from voting in the primary would be a decision up to the legislature, not the elections board.

"We felt that this is the way it was and the way it should be," Mr. Pelura said of allowing eligible 17-year-olds to vote in the primary.