Hoping to fuel the next crop of young voters, state lawmakers filed bills that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in some primary elections if they are going to turn 18 before the general election. The 17-year-olds would only be allowed to vote for state and county offices — not in federal races, such as U.S. congressional or presidential elections.
If the legislation passes, Texas would join nearly 20 states that allow some form of voting at age 17, including Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.
Supporters say changing the law in Texas will get young people in the lifetime habit of voting, while critics – including some county elections officials – say implementing the policy could confuse more 17-year-olds than it would empower.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who is attempting to pass the bill for the third time, said last session it did not even receive a hearing. This year, Howard filed House Bill 512, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed an identical bill in the Senate.
Since passing similar legislation in 2013, Illinois has seen “an influx of younger voters,” according to Cook County’s March 2018 post-election report. At 29 percent, turnout in the 2018 gubernatorial primary – the second to include the 17-year-old vote – was the highest since 2002 for a gubernatorial primary in the county, Illinois’ largest.
In Texas, however, experts on political participation say allowing primary voting at age 17 would only marginally impact turnout, since a fraction of voters cast ballots in primaries. Statewide, overall turnout was 17 percent in the 2018 primary and 30 percent in the 2016 primary, according to the Secretary of State.
“This wouldn’t spike turnout by any large margin overall, but you might see some improvements or small improvement on the edges,” said Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT-Austin.
Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, said the association is opposed to the bills as written because the change would confuse 17-year-olds regarding which elections they can and cannot vote in.
“One of the predominant challenges is that there are quite a few elections that can occur between a primary, where we’re allowing that 17 to vote … and the general election in November later that year where they’d be 18,” said Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator. “It makes for a complex situation … the implication being that when other elections happen in their county, in their city, in their school district … these voters would not be able to vote, only to be allowed to vote again when they become 18.”
If the legislation passes, Davis said county elections officials and poll workers will have to deal with a “log jam” of confused 17-year-old voters.
“What’s nice and neat and clean about the law as it exists, is when you’re 18, you can vote for any election that you qualify for,” Davis said. “This bill would only allow the 17-year-olds to vote in one election and they’re gonna be confused and they’re gonna think if they voted in that one, they can vote for a whole bunch of other elections when they see campaign signs come up in their neighborhood.”
Here’s HB512. On the one hand, I approve of efforts to expand the franchise, even in a not-all-the-way fashion. Some cities allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in their municipal elections, and I fully support that. That said, the way this is presented I do think it’s confusing and possibly unsatisfying to the very voters it would enable. The hottest primaries last year were for Congress, and none of the 17-year-olds in question would have been able to vote in them under this bill, as that’s a federal race. To me, the best way to do this would be to change the law to allow anyone who turns 18 in a given year on January 1 of that year to vote in all elections. That would require a federal Constitutional amendment, which needless to say ain’t gonna happen. I’m open to discussing what this bill wants to deliver, but I’m skeptical.