A last-minute decision to bar 17-year-olds who register as unaffiliated or independent from voting in nonpartisan contests such as Howard County's school board election has angered and embarrassed county League of Women Voters officials.
"I find this so outrageous, I'm beside myself," said Grace Kubofcik, a league co-president, who has been visiting county high schools to encourage 17-year-olds to register before the 9 p.m. Tuesday deadline. Some registered as independents, knowing that they would not be able to vote for a presidential candidate in the Feb. 12 primary if they didn't choose to be either Republicans or Democrats.
A decision based on advice from the Maryland attorney general and posted Jan. 9 on the state election board Web site said 17-year-olds may register and vote only if they will be 18 before Nov. 4, and only if they register as Democrat or Republican. Since 10 counties, including Howard, have nonpartisan contests in the primary, 17-year-old voters must use paper "provisional" ballots to make sure they followed the rules.
"We're out there saying voting is a fundamental right of the citizens of this country, so why deny, particularly to young people we're encouraging to vote, and secondly who were more than willing to go off and defend the liberties we all have?" Kubofcik said, referring to young members of the military.
"They are leaving a school system that has molded them and encouraged them to participate. We're throwing up this artificial barrier," she said.
Besides, high school seniors are ideal voters to participate in school board elections, Kubofcik said.
Many young people aren't sure about which group, if any, to affiliate with as a voter, yet they are excited about participating and take their affiliation choices seriously.
The back and forth over 17-year-olds voting in the primary began with a Court of Appeals decision more than a year ago on a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the practice.
Last summer, the election board said 17-year-olds could not vote next month. The board reversed that last month after a new legal interpretation stated that barring 17-year-olds from party primaries violates the parties' constitutional right of free association under the First Amendment. But on Jan. 3, new advice from the Attorney General noted that the youngest voters can only cast ballots in the party primaries, not in nonpartisan contests.
"It's not a matter that the party is taking a position on this. It's just the nature of the law," said Democratic party spokesman David Paulson.
As a surrogate for Hillary Clinton at the recent African-Americans in Howard County candidates' forum, Gloria Lawlah was confronted with a question many black voters are pondering.
"How can you support Hillary Clinton with your civil rights past?" an audience member asked Lawlah, secretary of the Maryland Office on Aging and a former state senator from Prince Georges County, who, like Clinton's rival Barack Obama, is African-American.
Lawlah told the crowd of about 40 people at St. John Baptist Church that she and Clinton are both concerned with "all rights of minorities," which includes blacks and women, since both groups are defined as minorities in the law.
"I don't separate it out there," she said. When Lawlah defeated a white male for her state senate seat in 1990, "you would have thought I had HIV AIDS," she said.
"I've known her [Clinton] a very long time. I've chosen to go with a woman this time," she said, adding that it was a difficult decision. "She has always been concerned about the core family unit. I trust her."
An older black woman in the audience attired in Clinton campaign gear passed a reporter a note expressing her feelings, though she did not want to be identified.
"I refuse to play the race card," she wrote. "Obama has a future, it just isn't here yet."
Lawlah then enjoyed vigorous support from the man sitting to her right at the Jan. 12 event - U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a surrogate at the forum for Obama.
"I will never, ever question Gloria Lawlah's dedication to the African-American community," Cummings said, recalling their service together in the House of Delegates in the 1980s.
Cummings talked about the dilemma faced by black women preparing to vote in Democratic primaries.
"Black women are a very, very significant part of the vote. Nobody seems to recognize that," he said, asserting that women make up the majority of black voters in Baltimore. That puts them "in a very interesting position" when it comes to choosing between Obama and Clinton.
In his presentation for Obama, Cummings said, "I never thought at age 56 I'd ever see anyone of color do what he's been able to do. He's an agent of change who has the ability to cross racial and gender lines."
Lawlah said "Clinton has mastered the fundamentals. She would fight and wouldn't back off. She has the great agenda of change that we need."
Only one Republican candidate was represented in the forum - Texas congressman Ron Paul, who was represented by Chris Panasuk, a GOP candidate for the 7th District congressional seat to which Cummings is seeking re-election.
Paul is for "personal liberty," is a strong opponent of the war in Iraq, and "never voted for an unbalanced budget," Panasuk said. The national debt is so high, he said, that future generations will be faced "with a situation that makes the Great Depression look like a rather pleasant time."