February 25, 2009
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.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 25, 2009 to That's our Lege
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