Too Soon: Reports of 17-Year-Olds Voting in Wisconsin Primary

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State officials and local prosecutors are trying to figure out what went wrong after reports that numerous 17-year-olds improperly cast ballots in last year’s Wisconsin presidential primary. Madison.com has more:

Dozens of 17-year-olds voted illegally across Wisconsin during last spring’s intense presidential primary, apparently wrongly believing they could cast ballots if they turned 18 ahead of the November general election, according to a new state report.

Wisconsin Elections Commission staff examined voter fraud referrals that municipal clerks said they made to prosecutors after the 2016 spring primary and general elections. The commission is set to approve the findings during a meeting Tuesday and forward a report to the Legislature.

Apparently, there was confusion on the status of those voters, who were turning 18 before the general election and therefore believed they were entitled to cast ballots in the primary:

Commission spokesman Reid Magney said Monday that he’d never seen this issue crop up before. The teenagers were likely encouraged to go to the polls by messages flying around social media during the spring primary season saying 17-year-olds could vote in some states as long as they turn 18 before the November election, the report said.

Some political campaigns also were spreading false information about eligibility, the report said. The Sanders campaign specifically was sending out national messages on social media about 17-year-olds being able to vote in presidential primaries, Magney said, although Wisconsin election officials didn’t see any misinformation from that campaign about Wisconsin.

Unfortunately for these voters, Wisconsin allows individuals to register at 17 if they will be 18 on Election Day – but not to vote. That confusion was not confined to the voters in question, however, given that they were permitted to cast ballots:

No one under 18 can vote in any Wisconsin election. But those under 18 may register to vote if they certify they will be 18 “at the time of the next election to be eligible to vote,” according to the instructions on the state’s voter registration application form.

Magney said 17-year-olds may have seen Sanders’ messages and thought they could vote. Poll workers may not have understood the law or may not have been paying enough attention, he added.

“It wasn’t a case of anyone sneaking in,” Magney said. “It was a misunderstanding of the law.”

These cases have been referred to prosecutors, though most have said they won’t be issuing charges because the voters believed they were eligible and there was no intent to vote improperly.

The Wisconsin story illuminates two things. First, it serves as a reminder that the primary voting status of 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election varies widely by state. Last year in Ohio, for example, the state ruled that 17-year-olds could not vote in the primary because they would be voting for delegates, not the candidate who would be on the ballot in November. It’s important to remember, though, that this is purely a policy choice by individual states – there are states where the voters in question here would have been eligible to cast ballots in the primary.

Second, this episode demonstrates that election officials need to be prepared for voters who don’t get their information from official sources and thus might be confused about whether and how they can participate. In theory, these 17-year-old voters should not have been allowed to cast ballots at the polls; either there was confusion about registration (permitted) versus voting (not permitted) or poll workers didn’t notice or care. That shouldn’t happen next time.

It’s an interesting problem for a jurisdiction to have, however; usually the complaint is that not enough young people are casting ballots. Here’s hoping that Wisconsin can figure out how to handle these enthusiastic “too soon” voters and ensure that the state isn’t discouraging participation at an age when voting can help form a lifelong habit. Stay tuned …

 

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