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As Ohio’s March 15 election date approaches, a controversy (accompanied by litigation) has erupted over the ability of 17-year-olds to cast ballots in the state’s increasingly-pivotal presidential primary. The Columbus Dispatch has more:
A national voting rights organization – along with nine 17-year-old plaintiffs – is suing Secretary of State Jon Husted for his refusal to allow 17-year-olds to vote in next week’s presidential primary.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidate for President, filed a separate suit on the matter in federal court. Sanders has strong support among younger voters.
“It is an outrage that the secretary of state in Ohio is going out of his way to keep young people – significantly African-American young people, Latino young people – from participating,” Sanders said in a news release.
The Fair Elections Legal Network filed a 16-page complaint against Husted today in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, claiming that the most recent version of the Ohio Election Manual violates the state’s Election Code by barring 17-year-olds from voting in the presidential primary.
Rachel Bloomekatz, the attorney working on the case, said Ohio Revised Code specifically allows 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections, including presidential primaries, if they will be 18 by the time of the general election.
“These students are looking forward to voting in the presidential primary and to having their votes counted,” she said. “They should be able to exercise this right. We seek to protect it.”
But Husted welcomes the suit, saying he believes state law does not permit 17-year to participate in the presidential vote because they are not actually voting for their candidates of choice:
In Ohio, 17-year-olds can vote only to nominate candidates, not directly elect them. In the 2015 Election Manual, Husted claimed that since voters in presidential primaries are technically electing delegates, they cannot vote in those elections …
Husted said he was “very happy to be sued” on the issue because “the law is crystal clear.”
“We are following the same rules Ohio has operated under in past primaries, under both Democrat and Republican administrations,” he said. “There is nothing new here. If you are going to be 18 by the November election, you can vote, just not on every issue.”
Plaintiffs say that position is wrong:
[FELN’s] Bloomekatz said Ohio Revised Code includes electing delegates in the definition of nominating candidates, meaning the same rules that apply to other “nominating” elections also apply to presidential primaries …
“Ohio law is clear on this issue,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU, “ 17-year-olds are entitled to cast ballots in primary races when they will be 18 by the date of the general election. However, the secretary of state is injecting confusion into this election by carving out special exceptions for the presidential race.”
In one sense, this controversy feels like “another Ohio election, another lawsuit” – but it does touch on a vital issue that has confronted other states. Not all states allow what I call “pre-18s,” who will be of voting age at the general election, to cast ballots in primaries. Given the politically and procedurally complex way we nominate candidates for President I wouldn’t be surprised to see this case get lots of attention elsewhere in states that do and don’t allow pre-18s to cast ballots. I’m also not entirely clear on how these voters cast ballots that count for some races and not others, which is a process that itself feels sufficiently complex that it could cause problems for voters and pollworkers on and after Election Day.
When you’re seventeen, everything can feel like a big deal … I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this really is. Stay tuned.