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voting age

Letting 17-year-olds vote

Sort of.

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.

Why 18?

The legal voting age has been 18 for forty years now, but some people would like it to be lower, at least for their local elections.

Critics of the young people sleeping on cardboard at Occupy Wall Street argue the next generation should engage in the political process, not merely protest it. But some very politically engaged young people in Lowell, Massachusetts, are revealing that the political system doesn’t exactly welcome their engagement.

Earlier this year, 1,500 members of the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) launched a campaign in Lowell to lower the voting age to 17 for city elections. The entire effort, from fundraising, to door knocking to lobbying legislators, was organized and led by the teens. They made an eloquent case for lowering the voting age.

“When you’re 17, that’s when most of us are seniors,” said Carline Kirksey, one of the youth leaders of the campaign. “You have more adult responsibilities. You can join the military. You can be tried as an adult in court.”

Another organizer Corinne Plaisir chimes in, saying that at 18 many young people are off at college. Figuring out the process all alone and voting unceremoniously by absentee ballot aren’t exactly enticements to civic participation. Instead, argues Plaisir, if young people can start voting in high school as part of their civics education, “It’s a prime time to engage in our civic rights.” Plus research has shown that when teens engage in even mock elections, their voter turnout as adults increases by almost 10 percent.

Better be careful, that sort of things can get you in trouble in Florida. I support this idea, and like Yglesias I’d be happy to see it extended, to more elections and younger voters. Of course, we’d need a political system – not to mention a society – that actually valued higher levels of participation for that to happen. Given the broad and sustained war on voting that is the hallmark of the modern Republican Party, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The primaries matter, too

A whole lot of people voted for the first time last November, and a whole lot of people voted in the March primaries, too. But some number of the former were ineligible for the latter because they turned 18 between March and November. State Rep. Hubert Vo thinks they should have been able to both, and he’s introduced a bill to that effect.

The Houston Democrat is the author of House Bill 513, which, if the Legislature approves and Gov. Rick Perry signs into law, would allow 17-year-old Texans to vote in the primaries, providing they would be 18 by no later than the day of the general election.

“A lot of young people are highly motivated to vote, and we should make it easier for them to get involved in the political process,” Vo said. “This would make our democracy stronger.”

Section 13.001 of the Texas Election Code makes it clear that besides basic requirements such as being a U.S. citizen and mentally competent, “to be eligible to apply for a registration, a person must, on the date the registration application is submitted to the registrar, be at least 17 years and 10 months of age.”

However, since the registration deadline is usually two months before the election, this means that by the time new voters cast their ballots they’ll be 18.


If Vo’s bill were to become law, Texas would become the 12th state to allow 17-year-olds to vote in the primaries, said Tom Intorcio, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut was the last state to do in November when voters approved the proposal. Oregon allows 17-year-olds to register, but they can’t vote until they are 18.

“One can make the general observation that there has been an intent in a number of states to engage youth in political process and promote political participation,” Intorcio said. “And this is one method or approach.”


“I think it’s a good idea,” said Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, vice chairman of the [House Elections Committee]. “It encourages participation among young people.”

But Rep. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, said he is not sold on the idea.

“I need to take a good look at it,” Heflin said. “You need to draw the line somewhere, and right now the law is pretty clear that you have to be 18 before you can vote. I am not sure we should start making some exceptions.”

I guess I don’t see how this is an exception. Primaries are elections, too, they just happen to be held in March instead of November. In some counties, the primary for one party or the other is more important than the general, at least for local races, because of that county’s partisan makeup. Hell, that was the case in Harris County for over a decade. I don’t see any reason why someone who will be eligible to vote in the November general election should be barred from voting in the March primary. There’s no substantive difference between the two.

Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, said he’s not sure Vo’s bill is needed.

“Do you trust a 17-year-old to vote?” asked Isett, who has a son that age.

Why not? More to the point, what makes them suddenly trustworthy the day they turn 18? Some people remain knuckleheads well past that milestone, others are more mature than most adults well before it. We trust them to drive, and that requires a lot more responsibility than voting. I don’t quite get the heartburn over this. Eighteen is an arbitrary number, used as a cutoff for some things and not for others. Defining that cutoff in terms of March and not November isn’t going to cause a crack in the foundation of our democracy.

Having said that, I don’t see any chance of this happening. Maybe as a straight-up law it might have a prayer, but this actually requires a constitutional amendment; HB 513 is the enabling legislation for HJR 34. I can envision majority support for this, but not two-thirds. Still, I hope it at least gets a floor debate, if only to see if there are better arguments against it out there.