The 17-year switch

December 20, 2007

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's opinion concerning the voting rights of 17-year-olds is a welcome return to sensibility. The political parties have long enjoyed the right to determine how to select their nominees for office. And for decades in Maryland, teens who turn 18 before the general election have had the right to vote in the primary - even if they're only 17 at the time.

How did 17-year-olds suddenly lose this right? It was the result of an unfortunate chain of events starting with last year's Court of Appeals decision striking down the state's recently enacted early voting law. The court's new interpretation of the state constitution applied general election standards to primaries. A subsequent assistant attorney general's opinion confirmed that allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections was unconstitutional under the court's ruling.

But it appears nobody checked the federal Constitution and most particularly the First Amendment's right of association. The Supreme Court has made it clear in various decisions that political parties can determine who will participate in the selection of a party's candidates, a point Mr. Gansler emphasized in yesterday's letter.

Today, the Maryland State Board of Elections is expected to rescind its decision and allow 17-year-olds to vote in the Feb. 12 primary. But elections officials will have to scramble to make sure eligible voters are informed about this opportunity.

This is probably not a huge number of people, of course. In 2004, 2,308 primary voters were age 17, according to election records. And the state has about 3,600 17-year-olds registered to vote under a "pending status" who will now get a chance to cast their ballot earlier than expected.

Still, it's a little disconcerting that no one stood up for these young people until the 11th hour when the board's policy met with protests from Democratic and Republican party leaders. This could have been resolved months ago - if the parties had asserted their federal constitutional rights. That's something the various lawyers involved in this process should have pointed out much earlier.

Historically, voters under 30 have the worst turnout of any age group, but those numbers have been improving in recent years. Anything that encourages their participation is good news. If 18-year-olds can choose the next president of the United States, they should first be able to select their party's nominee.

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