Lawsuit Grants Some 17-Year-Old Ohioans the Right to Vote

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On Tuesday, voters in five states and Republicans in the North Mariana Islands will turn out to participate in their caucuses and primaries, but in one state, the electorate just got a little bit bigger. After a court ruling last week, registered 17-year-olds in Ohio will have the right to participate in the state’s primary elections on Tuesday, going against the Ohio secretary of state’s earlier interpretation of Ohio law.

The ruling, which came down in favor of nine 17-year-olds in Ohio, was praised by the Bernie Sanders campaign, the ACLU of Ohio, the League of Women Voters in Ohio, and the Fair Elections Network, all of which either sent letters or filed lawsuits against the secretary of state’s interpretation. According to FairVote, a non-partisan voting reform advocacy group, Ohio is now one of 23 states in which 17-year-olds who will be 18 before the general election can participate in at least one party’s primary.

According to Ohio law, any eligible voter who will be 18 on or before the date of the general election may vote in their party’s primary election, even if they are not 18 at that point. Here’s the official text of the law:

At a primary election every qualified elector who is or will be on the day of the next general election eighteen or more years of age, and who is a member of or is affiliated with the political party whose primary election ballot he desires to vote, shall be entitled to vote such ballot at the primary election.

So what caused the problem? While the statute may seem pretty clear, the Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s interpretation of the law took issue with 17-year-olds’ participation due to the nature of primary elections. Unlike regular elections, voters in primary elections technically elect delegates who go on to nominate a candidate at the parties respective conventions. The plaintiffs argue that electing delegates is the same as nominating, while Secretary of State Husted disagrees. Husted’s argument differentiates between votes that nominate and votes that elect. He claims that because the election is for delegates, voters who are not 18 cannot weigh in on the presidential election.

Ohio allows voters who are not 18 but will be by the time of the general election to participate in primary elections, but they are not allowed to vote on issues or directly elect party committee members–which seems to be the basis of Husted’s interpretation. However, in the complaint, the plaintiffs say that based on the way Ohio defines primary elections, as “an election held for the purpose of nominating persons as candidates of political parties for election to offices,” Husted’s interpretation has no basis. Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye agreed, concluding that in the case of presidential primaries, voting to elect delegates has the same effect as nominating, and therefore, 17-year-olds should be entitled to cast a ballot.

After the ruling was handed down, Husted’s office issued a statement noting its disagreement with the judge, but ultimately saying that it would follow the ruling and not appeal. In the statement, Husted says, “I believe that Ohio law is clear and that my office has properly administered the law, just as previous Democrat and Republican Secretaries of State over the last two decades have done,” but added that he will follow the ruling and not challenge it further. He also notes, “Our elections system needs more stability and less chaos. This last minute legislating from the bench on election law has to stop.”

While the ruling may make it difficult for Ohio elections officials to properly count early voting from 17-year-olds, the judge instructed them to make all possible efforts to include their votes in the final count. While the ruling will likely only affect a small number of voters–individuals born between March 15 and November 8, 1999–it does set a clear precedent for the future.

Voting advocacy organizations like FairVote emphasize the potential benefits of lowering the voting age. By allowing individuals to vote when they are younger, they are more likely to make voting a habit and participate in civic life as they grow older. On balance, it seems like the ruling will be a net positive for young Ohioans.

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at krizzo@LawStreetMedia.com.



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