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Editorial: An interesting effort to expand ballot access

Last modified: 12/30/2013 12:13:38 AM
State politicians across the country, including in New Hampshire, have spent the past few years debating a variety of ways to limit access to the ballot box – various forms of voter ID requirements, limiting hours and polling places, changing same-day registration rules and more. That context makes it all the more encouraging that there are two state legislators in New Hampshire actually working in the opposite direction: a plan to expand access to the voting booth.

When the Legislature returns in January, one of the proposals on their agenda will be a constitutional amendment to allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by November to vote in that year’s primary elections. The idea sounds sort of random until you think about it a bit: The target audience are those teenagers who will have the right to vote in November but – without the change – get no say in whose names appear on that general election ballot. If you consider party primary elections part of that year’s total election process, why not let them participate in the entire operation?

There are other sound reasons to expand the franchise to nearly-18-year-olds. Most will still be in high school and, presumably, discussing the year’s political matches in class; the opportunity to actually vote in the elections they’re learning about will make the classroom lessons that much more relevant.

More broadly, any opportunity to encourage young people to start a lifelong habit of voting is worth trying. In many elections, young people are often the least represented demographic at the polls. Hooking teenagers on participating – especially when classroom teachers can help persuade them – may create diligent voters later in life.

The amendment, sponsored by Nashua Reps. Joel Winters and Michael Garcia, isn’t a radical change. In fact, across the country at least 20 states, including Maine, Vermont and Connecticut, allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and caucuses. (In some states, where the political parties, rather than state governments, control the early voting, the rules are peculiar: Several state Democratic parties, for instance, allow 17-year-olds to participate in party caucuses but their Republican counterparts do not.)

Elsewhere, election officials have gone even further. Austria, Argentina, Germany and the United Kingdom, for instance, have extended voting rights to 16-year-olds for national, regional or local elections. Studies in Austria show that the move promoted higher voter turnout for first-time voters, according to FairVote, a U.S. organization that promotes ballot access. The small city of Takoma Park, Md., officials recently extended the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds for municipal elections, and there are advocates of lowering the voting age nationally to 16 – in line with the age at which most states allow teenagers to drive cars.

The New Hampshire proposal to allow some 17-year-olds to participate in primary elections will need a three-fifths majority vote in the Legislature and, if successful, the support of a two-thirds of voters at the polls next November. That’s a high bar, but it’s hard to imagine too many good arguments against such a change. We encourage lawmakers to get behind it.


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