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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane politicians reach out to youth who can vote in primary, including some 17-year-olds

James Eberle was 17 when he cast a ballot in the August primary in 2022. He was one of 687 voters who were 17 during that primary who received Spokane County ballots because they turned 18 before the November election. Eberle posed in front of the Central Library in downtown Spokane in July 2022.  (Sidiq Moltafet/The Spokesman-Review)
By Roberta Simonson and Paige Van Buren The Spokesman-Review

Youths in Spokane County are preparing to vote in the August primary election, some for the first time.

Owen Haines, an 18-year-old resident of Liberty Lake, received his ballot and plans to study the candidates before making his final picks.

“I’m excited,” said Haines, a recent Ridgeline High School graduate. “I don’t know who I’m voting for yet.”

But it’s not just 18-year-olds who are voting this August. Some 17-year-olds will be choosing their favorite candidates as well. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington is among about one-third of states that allow 17-year-olds to vote in the primary – if they turn 18 by the general election.

“It gives 17-year-olds the opportunity to have a voice on who they are going to vote for in the general election,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.

There have been 745 ballots sent to 17-year-olds in Spokane County for the primary election.

Jack Kashork, an incoming senior at Ferris High School, and the Eastern Washington regional director of Washington High School Democrats, doesn’t turn 18 soon enough to vote in this year’s primary election, but he has friends who are 17 and received August ballots.

“Our mayoral election is coming up and City Council elections are coming up, and so they’re excited about voting in those elections,” Kashork said.

Youth votes are important, according to Spokane mayoral candidate Lisa Brown.

“The thing that gives me hope is when I see young people get involved,” Brown said. “There’s so much at stake for their future.”

Her opponent and current Mayor Nadine Woodward agrees.

“It’s important that young people are engaged because decisions that are made today are going to affect Spokane for a long time,” Woodward said in a prepared statement.

There are around 5,000 Spokane 16- and 17-year-olds who are either active voters (those who become adults before the general election) or have registration pending, said Spokane County Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin.

Washington allows citizens to pre-register to vote as early as age 16.

This is the key to getting teenagers to vote, Haines said. He wishes more teens made the effort.

“I think pre-registering is one of the best things that you can do,” Haines said. “It makes the process a lot easier when you just get it out of the way early.”

Haines was Ridgeline High School’s Junior State of America secretary. JSA is a club that promotes civic engagement in youth.

Actual teenage voter turnout is low. During the last election cycle, of the 687 ballots mailed to 17-year-olds in Spokane County, only 116 were returned and counted.

Haines believes teens don’t vote because they feel disempowered.

“Younger people feel both that they don’t care either way and that their vote doesn’t matter,” Haines said.

Beth Pelliciotti, a member of the Spokane League of Women Voters board of directors, said teens shouldn’t feel powerless.

“Elections can be very close and one vote, one vote can make a big difference,” she said.

Lucy He, a Central Valley High School senior who is the mayor of all Spokane chapters of JSA, said multiple factors are at play in low young voter turnout. She believes her peers are more interested in national, rather than local issues.

“Local politics get overlooked a lot, and young people especially tend to gravitate towards the more national headlines,” she said.

The Central Valley senior is planning events for next year that will showcase community politics, such as candidate forums, to engage more teenagers.

“We need to fight that apathy and get them involved,” He said. “Make sure they know that their voices matter and they can make a difference locally by participating.”

Haines offered another reason for small numbers of youth voting.

“I think it comes down to a lack of civic education,” he said.

In Spokane, the League of Women Voters reaches out to younger citizens through civic education classes for high schools seniors. Pelliciotti said these classes cover many aspects of civics, including voting as a young person.

“We talk about the mobility of youth. People are going away to college, or they may be moving out of their parents’ home for various reasons, and we talked about, because we’re a mail-in ballot state, how to keep their mailing address current,” Pelliciotti said.

Pelliciotti added that there is a demographic of homeless students in Spokane.

“We talked about the importance of all citizens being able to vote and how people who are experiencing homelessness can vote,” she said.

As a part of her campaign, Brown has gone to high school and college events where she’s engaged with youth who have become campaign volunteers focused on talking to other teenagers.

“The most effective thing is young people themselves doing the outreach and making the connections and planning the events,” Brown said in an interview.

Woodward said that she plans to hold events “with young voters to help them get the information they need to be involved.”

Haines has a suggestion to bring in young people: use their favorite media platforms. He emphasized that his generation grew up on the internet and social media.

“A lot of times we drive around and we see signs, but we don’t really know what the policies or political standings of candidates are,” Haines said. “Focusing a little more attention on those media platforms is something that is going to get youth voters a lot more interested in local politics.”

Lucy He, the Central Valley High School student, has two other goals for next year as a Junior State of America leader.

Increasing that “pre-registration, and letting people know that if you’re 17 and about to turn 18 you can vote,” she said. “I don’t think that law is super well-known.”

Dalton agrees with the teenagers on the importance of becoming civically engaged young.

“If someone casts a ballot early in their life, as a 17, 18, 19-year-old, they are more likely to continue to be a lifelong voter,” Dalton said.

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart said that was certainly true for him. Even in elementary school, he would go to the ballot boxes with his dad and help him vote.

“It instilled in me a sense of civic pride for my community,” Cathcart said.

He has advice for teenagers getting ready to fill out a ballot.

“Take it seriously,” Cathcart said. “Read the voter’s guide. Do your due diligence.”

Roberta Simonson and Paige Van Buren's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.