Should 17 Year Olds Vote in the Primaries?
Politically-engaged teens say it's only fair, if they'll be 18 by Election Day

By Jane Wolkowicz
Published March 4th 2008 in NYU LIVEWIRE

Although he won’t turn 18 until August, Minnesota high school senior Josh Bernick participated in his state’s Republican caucus.

“For the first time in my life, I actually feel like I have some authority in the world, and don’t just have to sit back and watch things happen,” said Bernick, a student at Henry Sibley High School in St. Paul.

Bernick is in the lucky minority: fewer than 20 states let 17 year olds who will be 18 by Election Day vote in the primaries.

Political parties and state attorneys general usually make that call — and states can be reluctant to lower the age bar.

“If you start making exceptions, where are we going to draw the line?” wondered North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who said he would be reluctant to change the law in his state, as it would raise questions about who could vote in other elections. “We do have the presidential primary race to think about, but we also have city elections in June, and should 17 year olds be able to participate in those?”

No, Jaeger argues, because the U.S. Constitution says “that to be a qualified voter, you have to be of age, which is 18 years old.”

Yet decisions banning 17 year olds have sometimes crumbled under legal scrutiny. And in states that ban the practice — such as California and New York — some teenagers are irate.

“There is no reason why a person who will be 18 by Nov. 4th, and can cast a ballot in the election, shouldn’t be able to cast a ballot to decide who should be their party nominee,” argued Rebecca Steiner, a senior at San Dieguito High School Academy in San Diego, Calif.

“I’m clearly informed enough about the issues,” said Steiner, the captain of her school’s debate team. “I read the L.A. Times and many online news sites every day, and my friends and I have political discussions on a regular basis.

“It should be the same rules for political parties in every state, either all 17 year olds should be able to participate, or none should,” she contended.

“I already know I’m voting for Barack Obama,” said Jessica Wong, a senior at the New York High School for Math, Science, and Engineering. “And if I know I want to support the democratic candidate, I should be supporting him in the primary, not just in November.”

Too, she said, as a member of a political club, the Junior Statesmen of America, she participates in weekly politics discussions.

“That’s a lot more than many adults I know talk about it.”

A lawsuit earlier this year persuaded Maryland to restore voting rights to some 50,000 teens who will turn 18 by Nov. 4th.

Student Sarah Boltuck, then 17, and her parents sued the Board of Elections, in a case that re-established voting rights for teens in that age group.

Though Maryland’s attorney general had found 17-year-old voting unconstitutional, based on a Court of Appeals decision on early voting, opponents who argued that the legal reasoning was flawed prevailed, according to FairVote, a not-for-profit that advised the Boltuck family on the suit.

Publicity surrounding the case also ended up more than tripling the number of 17 year olds registering to vote in Maryland by primary time, to 10,000, from about 3,000 a month before, according to FairVote representative Adam Fogel.

“It just really shows how engaged young people are, and how they want to participate,” Fogel said. “Voting is habit forming; if they are voting now, they will most likely be voting for life. I almost guarantee 99% of 17 year olds voting in the primaries will be back to vote in November.”

Rock the Vote, which encourages young voters to register and vote, has expanded its campaign to high school seniors.

“We recognize the importance of 17 year olds who will soon turn 18, and work to engage, educate, and inform that group,” said Rock the Vote representative Shavonne Harding.

Rock the Vote sponsored a pre-caucus “Rock the Caucus” event in Iowa, generating buzz via Facebook, and organizing mock caucuses in Iowa high schools. Record numbers of young voters ended up participating in the Iowa caucuses.

Bernick found his experience enlightening.

“I would say I’m very informed after the attending the caucus,” he said. “Whenever I discuss the election with my friends now, I feel like I definitely have the edge.”