COLUMBUS, Ohio – A policy for Ohio’s youngest voters is under dispute in the swing state, causing confusion and prompting two lawsuits days before the primary election.
Ohio law allows 17-year-olds who will be 18 before the fall election to vote in next week’s primary, with some exceptions. Young Ohio voters can decide on congressional, legislative and mayoral contenders but can’t vote on tax levies, ballot issues or a political party’s central committee candidates.
At issue is whether they can vote in the presidential primary race. At least 20 other states allow 17-year-olds to vote in presidential primaries or caucuses, though rules sometimes vary based on political party, according to FairVote, an organization that tracks electoral issues.
The state’s Republican elections chief says Ohio rules don’t allow it. But voter advocates and some Democrats, including presidential contender Bernie Sanders, are questioning that assertion.
The disagreement stems from the distinction between “elect” and “nominate.”
A manual for elections officials issued last year by Secretary of State Jon Husted says state law allows the 17-year-olds to vote “solely on the nomination of candidates.” But it also says, “In presidential primary elections, a 17-year-old voter is not permitted to vote for presidential delegates, because delegates are elected and not nominated.”
Groups including the Ohio chapters of the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union disagree with Husted’s interpretation. They say the delegates that are “elected” aren’t assuming office but are serving as the voters’ surrogates at a party’s nominating convention. They want Husted to tell boards of elections that 17-year-olds can vote in the presidential primary.
“There are no limitations in Ohio law on qualified voters casting ballots in particular races,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio. He called the distinction “legislative tap dancing.”
Husted is being sued in state and federal court but says Ohio has operated under the same rules in past primaries.
“The law is crystal clear,” Husted said Tuesday. “There is nothing new here. If you are going to be 18 by the November election, you can vote, just not on every issue.”
Fair Elections Legal Network, a Washington, D.C.-based voting rights organization, filed a complaint Tuesday in state court on behalf of nine 17-year-old voters in central Ohio. They want the court to block Husted’s directions so the young voters can make their presidential primary picks.
Columbus high school junior Emma Nell Warner-Mesnard, one of the plaintiffs, says she’s watched debates, followed news about the candidates and voted early Monday.
“I’ve been excited about voting in the presidential primary for months,” she said in a court filing. “I think that we have an obligation to vote and participate in democracy. … I want my vote to count.”
Separately, Sanders’ presidential campaign and parents of 17-year-old Ohio voters have sued Husted in federal court in Columbus.
Among other arguments, they say Ohio law doesn’t distinguish between primaries in which candidates are nominated directly and those in which candidates are nominated indirectly via the “election” of proxy delegates. They say Husted is violating due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Younger voters are among Sanders’ key supporters.
Complicating matters is that early voting has been underway in Ohio for weeks.
In Franklin County, home to Columbus, about 200 young voters have already cast primary ballots. The ballots are set aside to ensure those contests voted on are accurately counted, said Ben Piscitelli, a spokesman for the county’s elections board.
Piscitelli said poll workers are telling 17-year-olds they’ll have to wait until November to vote for president. He said one father was so upset that he and his daughter left without voting, and a mother who arrived with her daughter threatened to sue but voted.
“It’s really nothing new,” Piscitelli said. “It’s new if you are a first time 17-year-old voter. It’s kind of like finding out that they can’t get their driver’s license for another six months. You know, they are disappointed, but that’s the law.”
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