They're 16, they're Baltimoreans, they can vote

Age doesn't matter, unless you're a cheese," quipped aging actress Billie Burke. Obviously, she hadn't heard of the brouhaha in Baltimore over the prospect of hordes of 16-year-olds voting in the Sept. 9 primary.

The revelation by city election officials in early May that Baltimore's oddly scheduled primary opened up this youthful loophole provoked emotions ranging from delight to despair. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called the situation "an embarrassment."


Since then, 16-year-olds have become the Rodney Dangerfield of Maryland politics - they get no respect. Political consultants quoted in The Sun predict that few of the city's 9,500 16-year-olds who are eligible will register by the Aug. 19 deadline. Some parents agree, bemoaning teen-agers' lack of common sense - though one would think that might mean parents should be glad teens would not bother to take their wayward ways into the voting booth.

However, this election is not about common sense; if it were, the primary would not be held a full 14 months before the general election - a decision that did not involve the input of any 16-year-olds. After city residents voted, in 1999, to push back local elections one year so voting would coincide with the presidential election in 2004, they, quite logically, expected that the General Assembly would adjust the primary date accordingly.


When bleary-eyed legislators stumbled home in April, however, city voters were as out of luck as those who gambled on slot machines. In large part because of a feud between Senator Miller of Prince George's County and city politicians over whether the mayoral election should be aligned with the presidential election cycle or the gubernatorial cycle, the original primary date - Sept. 9 this year - remained. That meant any city resident who would turn 18 by Nov. 2 next year is eligible to vote in this year's primary.

The following month, city officials armed with calendars discovered this irrational arrangement allows some 16-year-olds to vote. Charm City might find itself in the Guinness book of records as the only electorate in the nation allowing 16-year- olds to cast a ballot. Regardless of how nonsensical this election gap seems, it makes even less sense to insist that 16-year-olds will not go to the polls. Juveniles have a natural affinity for voting.

The concept of voting is very cool right now, as viewers of reality TV will attest. As soon as survivors started voting each other off islands, the youth back home wanted a piece of the action. How much of the excitement over Fox's American Idol TV show was actually about rating the talent that appeared every week and begged for viewers' votes, and how much came from adolescents voting from their home phones against the demonic judge Simon? By the time teen voters could sentence Hollywood stars to another week of eating grasshoppers in the jungle on I'm a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here, 16-year-olds were hooked on voting. Granted, choosing a candidate for City Council is different from selecting the best vocalist, but the basic sentiment is the same: My choice matters.

It also defies reason to say that 16-year-olds should not vote. Figures show that the number of teens who volunteer in their communities is increasing. The National Association of Secretaries of State reports a 16 percent rise over the past decade of American youth donating their time to community service and an 11 percent increase in teens' religious volunteerism. The caricature of the self-absorbed, tattooed slacker teen zipping away from responsibility on a skateboard fades in light of the association's report that 69 percent of American youth were volunteering by 1998. Since the majority of teens already exercise a social conscience, shouldn't the exercise of voting be close behind?

Certainly most adults would agree that 16-year-olds are opinionated. These convictions inevitably extend to government. Witness the anger and disbelief on a lad's face when he sees his first paycheck AFTER taxes are withheld. Never try to justify the whopping national deficit to a teen who cannot drive to the mall because she has no cash for gas. And remember that the candidates in the September primary make decisions on the biggest factor in a 16-year-old's world: school. Whether they love it, hate it, or no longer attend, all teens can fervently describe how schools could be improved. Candidates might learn a political lesson this year: Hell hath no fury like a high school student with a gripe.

Lastly, teens love to prove adults wrong. Some political pundits predict that 16-year- olds will follow the low voting rate of 18- to 21-year-olds. A mere 42 percent of the Marylanders in that age bracket voted in the 2000 presidential election, according to figures reported in the University of Maryland's student newspaper, The Diamondback.

If such a low teen turnout is expected, then why are some adults so dismayed about a 16-year-old in the voting booth? Is it because the right to vote is the pinnacle of equality? Casting a ballot is the ultimate civil right that African-Americans and women campaigned, fought and even died to attain. When a 16-year-old enters a voting booth, there is an indisputable moment when parent and child are equal. The kid with the pierced tongue who slurps milk straight from the carton has the same voice as the parent who brings home the groceries. If teens hear that they are not expected to vote this September, some will take it as a challenge to prove adults wrong.

Some eligible 16-year-olds have already registered for the primary, eager to take their first election seriously, but many more will need help. Schools, political organizations and parents must guide teens through voter registration and the technicalities of marking a ballot when that mysterious curtain closes behind them in the voting booth Sept. 9.


Perhaps then teens can change Baltimore's newest slogan from "Reason to Believe" to "Reason to Vote."

Nicholas Leonhardt is a 16-year-old who will be a junior at Loyola Blakefield high school in the fall. He says he would register to vote in the September primary, but he lives in Baltimore County.