While Illinois’ image of corrupt politics is founded, the state may be taking a step in the right direction by lowering the voting age. Starting with the March 2014 primary, all qualified citizens who will be 18 by the time of the general election will be allowed to vote in the primary. This means for the first time ever, 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in Illinois.
Why Lower the Voting Age for Primaries?
Primaries and Caucuses (a similar process) are party-specific elections where voters help decide who will represent their party in the general election. This makes sure that the winning candidate receives the full support of her party in the general election: when the top candidate from each party competes for the political office. The Federal government under the 26th Amendment regulates the age of suffrage for most general elections. Since the 1970s, this age has been 18.
On the other hand, there is no national law regarding the age for voting in primaries. Because these are essentially internal party affairs, some state parties have simply lowered the age unilaterally. For example in Alaska, Kansas, North Dakota and Washington, the Democratic Party unilaterally lowered their caucus participation age to include 17-years-olds who will be 18 by election day. In Illinois’ case, legislation was passed to affect this same change. The effect is the same: youths who will be adults by the general elections will also get to vote in the primary regardless of age.
Should Minors Vote?
While Illinois has the right to lower the voting age, should it? Academics have studied voters’ political understanding and found that not only 17-year old, but also up to voters up to their mid-20s have a “competence gap” compared to older age groups. Yet, they also believed that we should not suddenly raise the voting age either (unlike the UK, the US cannot raise the age as it is a Constitutional guarantee to 18 year olds).
This move may have more long-lasting positive effects in the long-term. Eighteen is one of the most inconvenient times to be able to vote. Most 18 years olds are transitioning to college, military service, or careers. They might be moving or working long hours, and this leaves registering to vote very low on their bucket list. By contrast, 17-years olds are mostly students living with family and often studying social studies in school. It would seem to be a much better time to get in the practice of voting. Once these young voters feel represented, it seems more likely that they will vote again and perhaps get politically active in other ways. This concept is known as political socialization, and a stronger socialization among youths could lead to more political attention to their needs such as the underfunding of public colleges.
Will they actually vote?
Negative View: Primary elections are notoriously poorly attended. First, every voter must register. Illinois (like most states) requires voter registration weeks before the election. These registrations are reviewed to ensure that these are real people and that they have not registered elsewhere. The days of voting ‘early and often’ in Illinois are over. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the mail reminding potential voters to register in time. In addition, 17-year-olds face the unique obstacle of knowing that they are suddenly eligible. Having never occurred before, many may have no clue of their new right. Finally even among registered voters, the turnout is low. In 2010, only 23% voted. In 2008 with a Presidential candidate from the state, the turnout only rose to 41%. These statistics are even lower when you add in the millions who never registered and thus could not vote.
Positive View: Because most 17-year-olds are mostly students, voting drives at high schools quickly get the word out that they are now eligible to vote. In speaking with a suburban Cook County registration drive volunteer, one suburban school had 40 students sign up. Given that only a fraction of the high school’s thousand students are eligible (around 400), this amounts to registering around 10% of eligible voters in one day. While this only anecdotal, it is indicative of a desire among young people to vote.
Furthermore, data from other states suggests that those who register do in fact vote on Election Day. Youth turnout in the 2008 General Election was 51.1%. Of the states that allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, 70% (7/10) had above average youth voter turnout. This is a good indication of what may happen in the 2014 Primary.
How do I register to vote?
Regardless of whether you are 17 or 70, you must register in order to vote (except in North Dakota). The deadline is often weeks in advance, allowing the election officials to ensure that all registered voters are real. Quickly sign up today by printing out and mailing the National Mail Voter Registration Form. It is accepted by in 48 states (including Illinois) & the District of Columbia. If you live in Wyoming or US territories, please contact your local government for instructions.