Among our resources at FairVote.org, we provide a simple map and table describing what states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections (provided they will be 18 by the general election). A total of 16 states put this common sense practice into their state laws for congressional primaries, and 23 allow it (for at least one of the parties) in presidential primaries.
We list Ohio as a state that allows 17-year-olds to vote in both congressional and presidential primaries. However, we have recently heard from some supporters in Ohio that the Secretary of State has issued a rule saying that 17-year-olds cannot vote in presidential primaries. We double-checked, and Ohio law seems to clearly allow 17-year-olds to vote in any primary election. We contacted other election advocacy groups in Ohio and learned that others agreed that the Secretary of State was exceeding his authority by denying 17-year-olds their voting rights in primary elections.
Earlier this week the ACLU of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN), and Bernie Sanders’ Presidential Campaign each took action against the Ohio Secretary of State for his attempts to restrict 17-year-old voting in that state’s March 15 presidential primary. FairVote applauds their efforts to secure for 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote in their first election and to ensure a lifetime of civic engagement.
Ohio law says that 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the time of the general election can vote in that year’s primary elections. In presidential years that means 17-year-olds can vote in both the Presidential and congressional primaries. This year, Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office has been telling voters and local Boards of Election that this is not the case under Ohio law. Instead, they argue, 17-year-olds may vote only to “nominate,” not to “elect.” Presidential primaries technically elect delegates on behalf of candidates, who will then go on to vote for their assigned candidates at the party conventions this summer. Due to this technicality, the Secretary of State’s office says that 17-year-olds are forbidden from voting in the presidential primary. No other state with 17-year-old primary voting appears to follow this interpretation of law.
This policy most likely dates back to the beginning of Secretary Husted’s tenure in 2011, if the 2012 Poll Worker manual is any indication. On page 29, the same exact language at issue in the lawsuits and letters from this week is used to describe the Secretary’s interpretation of Ohio primary law. Additionally, when FairVote first heard about this issue from voters in Ohio last week, we called the Secretary of State’s office to find out what was going on. They told us that the same policy, in substance, was in place from 1999 to 2007, during Ken Blackwell’s tenure as Secretary of State. We have not been able to find documentation of that policy online. They did not comment on the policy of Secretary Jennifer Brunner, Husted’s predecessor, but it appears to have been more permissive than Secretary Husted’s. Neither this directive from 2008 nor the 2010 Poll Worker Manual (see page 135), both promulgated during Secretary Brunner’s 2007 to 2011 tenure, makes the same distinction as Secretary Husted.
As the ACLU of Ohio, the League, the FELN, and the Sanders Campaign argue in their letters and lawsuits, that interpretation is directly contrary to Ohio law. In short, the groups argue that Secretary Husted is misunderstanding the purpose of the law, 17-year-olds getting to vote in the nominating contest for their first general election as fully-fledged voters, as well as the text itself. The text of the law is fairly simple: 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the time of the general election can vote in the primaries for that election. It makes no distinction between “nominating” and “electing,” simply permitting 17-year-olds to vote in the primary. The Sanders Campaign goes so far as to call the Secretary of State’s actions unconstitutional, arguing that the interpretation has a greater impact on African American and Latino voters, who make up a larger portion of the youth vote, than on white voters.
The Secretary’s bizarre interpretation is causing confusion in Ohio among Boards of Election and, it appears, on the Secretary’s own website. Seventeen-year-old voting is a FairVote innovation that improves civic engagement. Voting is habit-forming, and the opportunity to be involved in an election from primary to general ensures that voters will stay involved in that election and in elections to come. Hopefully the Secretary will clear up this confusion soon and permit 17-year-olds to participate in Ohio’s primary next week.