To Baltimore's youngest voters, their age isn't a primary issue

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lacking drivers' licenses, some will need rides to the precinct. They're years from having their first legal sip of beer. And they can't run for office.

They're the 16-year-olds and newly turned 17-year-olds that, under an oddity in election laws, are eligible to vote in tomorrow's city primary.

Because Baltimore officials and state lawmakers could not agree on moving the election to next March or September, there is a 14-month gap between the primary and the general election in November 2004, in which 18-year-olds can vote. This means that anyone who turns 17 by Nov. 2 can vote tomorrow, if registered.

Confusing but true - and no one realized it until weeks after the General Assembly adjourned in April.

Sixteen-year-old King S. Awonusi II, a senior at Dunbar High School, will be among the youngest voters when he casts a ballot at a fire hall near his home on East Cold Spring Lane. His birthday is Oct. 27.

"I just made it," says Awonusi, who would have been denied the right to vote if his birthday had fallen six days later.

Barbara E. Jackson, city election administrator, says 855 16-year-olds and 1,566 17-year-olds, about one-fourth of those eligible, registered for the primary before the Aug. 19 deadline. Youth advocacy and community groups and political parties registered many of them in the last days of school in the spring and during the summer. Others registered online.

"Wouldn't it be nice if 100 percent of them showed up to vote on Sept. 9?" says Jackson, who acknowledged that she had thought earlier that "16 years old is a little bit too young."

Many share the confusion of their elders as the city lurches toward a government with 14 new single-member districts and a council president and mayor elected citywide.

"I think I can name one, maybe two, of the candidates," says Jennifer Seal, 17, a senior at the Institute of Notre Dame who plans to vote with her parents in Highlandtown.

Awonusi knows where he is to vote but doesn't know what district he's in. He's far from alone.

"I forgot which one I've registered in," says Jose Deford, 17, who registered at Walbrook Uniform Services Academy.

But the newly minted voters rebuffed criticism that they're too young and clueless to take on the civic responsibility.

Deford, a member of the Walbrook debate team, says people "don't know what teen-agers know," and that those who say teens are susceptible to political manipulation are "just assuming it."

If they're a little short on knowing the candidates and the districts, these students are well-versed on the issues that affect them.

"Who better than us knows about the public schools and crime?" asks Awonusi, who has spent time as a volunteer for Mayor Martin O'Malley, making cold calls to undecided voters. "We need a lot more money in the Baltimore public school system. It's just ridiculous. And crime should be a concern to everyone, not just older adults. And the potholes. Fixing the roads ought to be a priority."

Seal registered online after reading about the opportunity in a Sun article.

"I thought, like, 'Wow, this is cool!'" she says. She has been doing some homework on the issues. "It's hard. I've been thinking about getting neighborhoods working better, about improving the school system." She has been studying the fliers that started to drift in by mail after she registered.

Nearly all of the 16-year-olds who signed up for the primary registered as Democrats. There were a handful of Republicans and one Green Party registrant. (A few who registered as Independents won't be able to vote in the primary election.)

Generation Next, a collaboration of youth organizations, says it registered more than 1,000 of the young Baltimore voters, including 142 at Walbrook and 110 at Dunbar. Last week, the organization distributed a "suggested ballot."

"Even if we'd registered 5,000, it would have been no good if they don't know who to vote for," says the group's chairman, Hassan Giordano.

Heading Generation Next's "youth ticket" for mayor is Andrey Bundley, principal of Walbrook.

Sun staff writer Matt Whittaker contributed to this article.

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