17-year-olds can vote in primary

Must be 18 by Nov. 4, elections board says

December 21, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

Seventeen-year-olds will be able to vote in Maryland's presidential primary in February, the state Board of Elections decided yesterday, unanimously reversing a policy change it made this summer.

After receiving a new opinion this week from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler saying the state's political parties have the right to decide who will choose their nominees, the board decided to revert to a policy it had followed for decades. Minors who will turn 18 before the Nov. 4 general election will be allowed to vote in the Feb. 12 primaries.

"With increasing apathy among youth, people need to get involved in politics again, especially when you're young," said Sarah E. Boltuck, a Bethesda 17-year-old whose voter application was rejected this summer. "It's exciting to get involved now because this is a hotter election than past elections. ... But it's also just the principle of it, that for the past four decades, 17-year-olds have been allowed to vote, and I think it's a very important statute to uphold."

However, Boltuck and state political leaders said it was a shame that the board had decided to prevent 17-year-olds from voting in the first place. The board sent letters to 3,600 minors in the summer telling them they would not be allowed to vote. As many as 50,000 17-year-olds could be affected by the policy.

"The State Board of Elections has taken the right action in restoring the rights of our young people. However, it should have never come to this," Maryland Republican Party Chairman Jim Pelura said in a statement. "The board changed policy that would have disenfranchised up to 50,000 voters and did not tell the public."

Boltuck said the board's moves caused "tragic confusion" among her peers and said the board "actively discouraged" teenagers from submitting voter registration applications.

Board members bristled at the criticism. They made the initial policy change after a previous letter from Gansler's office concluded that the language of a Court of Appeals decision throwing out an early-voting statute suggested that voting by the 17-year-olds would be illegal.

The board's director of voter registration, Mary Cramer-Wagner, said she and her staff have continued their outreach efforts to high schools. She said the board has continued to receive applications and will work quickly to process the more than 3,800 applications it has received from eligible 17-year-olds.

Board member Andrew V. Jezic called any confusion that might result from the board's about-face "a blessing in disguise."

"If anything, this has generated so much press attention, that we're likely to generate hundreds, maybe thousands more to register to vote," Jezic said.

Still, officials with voters groups were concerned they would not have enough time to get news of the changed rule out in time for the Jan. 22 registration deadline.

"We're just worried that those voters have gotten discouraged and that they won't know that they're eligible to vote now," said Adam Fogel, a right-to-vote director with FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Takoma Park. "With winter break getting ready to start, we have barely three weeks to reach these students."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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