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Young and ready to vote

The Baltimore Sun

Seventeen-year-old Elaina Bellas likes Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, but she registered as a Republican for next month's Maryland primary at Mount Hebron High School this week. She has not really decided on a candidate, but her parents are Republicans, so she followed suit, she said.

"I think everyone should have an opinion - a voice in who is going to lead our country," Bellas said, as she finished filling out the registration form and prepared to return to class.

Last month, Bellas and scores of other 17-year-olds in Maryland were granted the right to vote in the primary by the State Board of Elections, as long as they will be 18 on or before the general election Nov. 4. Howard County League of Women Voters volunteers and county elections board officials are visiting high schools where help is requested to try to register more seniors before the Jan. 22 deadline. Under new rules announced this week, 17-year-olds must use provisional paper ballots in Howard to make sure they vote only in the major party presidential primaries. The young voters are not allowed to vote in nonpartisan contests, such as Howard's school board primary.

About 500 seniors from five of the county's 12 public high schools - Centennial, Glenelg, Marriotts Ridge, Mount Hebron and Reservoir - and at Chapelgate Christian Academy have registered, said Betty Nordaas, county Elections Board administrator.

Registering high school students normally has taken place in the spring, said Pat Hooker, Mount Hebron's media specialist and a member of the League of Women Voters. But an extra effort is under way since the state board reversed its ruling on 17-year-olds three weeks ago.

The board sent letters last summer to 3,600 17-year-olds telling them they could not vote in the primary election. As many as 50,000 young Maryland voters could have been affected.

Those at Mount Hebron seemed eager to register, and many also filled out green cards that would enable them to earn $165 for serving as an election judge on primary day, plus $35 for training, if needed.

"I think they're probably more interested than past generations," said Andrea Sugg, whose social studies classroom was used for the registration program. "After Sept. 11, there's more appreciation of the military," and the continuing war in Iraq is also showing students "what might happen. They're starting to see that these real-world issues do affect them."

That's exactly how Eviealle Dawkins, 17, sees it. "I'm helping to make a decision that will affect my life," she said.

Dawkins, who has a cousin serving in the Army in Iraq, wants the war to end and her cousin home. She is researching candidates but thinks she likes Democrat Barack Obama, so she registered as a Democrat.

Zell Lucas, who will be 18 in July, said he also has relatives serving in Iraq and registered as a Democrat.

"I would like to see the troops come home," he said.

Dan Kennett, 18, an aspiring actor, said he feels the election is important. He has watched the YouTube and Facebook candidates debates and likes Obama. "For the first time, this is an election that's going to mean something to me," Kennett said. "This [next] president will affect my life."

Many young people, including Caroline Rosenvold, who said she will turn 18 on April 26, followed family tradition.

"I'm really into politics," she said, explaining she expects to major in government and politics in college. She registered as a Republican, like her parents.

"I agree with [the Republicans'] overall platform," she said.

For James Strunck, who will be 18 on May 31, making abortion illegal is the issue that dictated his choice to register as a Republican. He said he likely will support former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"I'm Catholic; my parents are very Catholic; I think it's really evil," he said about abortion.

Less certain was Jane Choe, who will turn 18 on Oct. 3.

She wanted to register but might not vote in the primary.

"I just don't think I know enough about the candidates yet to make an informed choice," she said.

Victoria Carter and Annie Fritz, who said they would turn 18 in the spring, said they have been watching the televised debates and are taking their new role seriously.

"I think it's important," Fritz said. "You need to vote. You need to be part of the process."

Khurram Mushtaq could not agree more, but the 18-year-old native of Pakistan learned that he has to first become a U.S. citizen before he can register to vote, something he expects to do before November.

His family came to the United States a decade ago, he said, and moved to Howard County when he was in sixth grade. He was not upset at being rejected, though. "I just thought it would be interesting" to register and vote, he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

REGISTRATION

Maryland's Board of Elections changed its policy in December to allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the Nov. 4 general election to vote in the Feb. 12 primary election provided they have registered by 9 p.m. Jan. 22.

Under new rules posted Wednesday 17-year-olds in Howard County must vote by paper, provisional ballot to ensure they vote only in the partisan presidential primaries. They cannot vote for nonpartisan school board candidates.

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