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Teens turn out for vote

The Baltimore Sun

Brittany Harris was determined.

The 17-year-old skipped out on her after-school hospital internship, went straight home, waited for her mother, then got a lift to the Board of Elections office in downtown Baltimore. Two hours before the voter registration deadline, she triumphantly filled out an application. Come Feb. 12, she will be able to vote in Maryland's Democratic primary.

If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama become president, "it would be historic," she said. "I want to be a part of that - to make a difference, to make a change."

Harris is one of about 12,600 Maryland 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the November election and registered to vote in the state's presidential primary by Tuesday night's deadline. A rule change approved by the state election board and backed by the major political parties cleared the way for the participation of 17-year-olds. The figures could increase because state officials are still processing applications, including mail-in registration forms.

The notion that teenagers don't care about politics or are uninformed or too immature to vote is an unfair stereotype, say 17-year-old registered voters from around the state.

"I think it's really cool, especially since I will be voting in the regular election and I now will be able to vote for the candidate that my party picks," said Natalie Raps, a 17-year-old senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, who backs Clinton. "They always want to get young people involved in politics, but this is a right step. ... It's saying your opinion does matter and your vote does count. It's not just lumped in with America and what America thinks and what our parents think. It's my own vote from the very beginning of the process."

Here's how many 17-year-olds in Maryland secured the right to vote in the state's primary, which now could play a significant role in the nominating process.

For decades, 17-year-olds had been allowed to vote in Maryland primaries, but Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler determined in late 2006 that a Court of Appeals decision striking down an early-voting statute suggested the practice was illegal. The state board followed up over the summer by prohibiting 17-year-olds from voting in the primaries.

But pressure from the major political parties and others - including Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat - prompted Gansler to reconsider and subsequently revise his opinion. Last month, the state board reversed course, leaving various groups scrambling to get out the word. One advocate estimated, based on census data, that as many as 50,000 17-year-olds could be eligible.

Seventeen-year-old voters still cannot vote in nonpartisan primary elections, which, ironically, makes them ineligible to vote for school board candidates. Separate lawsuits seeking to eliminate that restriction have been filed on behalf of two 17-year-old voters in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, and Raskin has proposed legislation that would do the same.

In the meantime, those who registered before Tuesday's deadline - including more than 6,800 Democrats and 3,500 Republicans - are tuning in to presidential politics.

"It's surreal," said Harris, a senior at Milford Mills Academy in Baltimore County. Of course she knew she would vote one day, "but you never actually think it's coming tomorrow."

Improving the country's education system matters most to Harris, who said she is still deciding between Obama and Clinton.

Julie Chang, the 17-year-old co-chair of Maryland Teenage Republicans, helped organize a nonpartisan "emergency" voter registration drive at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.

"Political apathy among youth in America is a large problem. However, I don't think it's as far spread as it may seem," said Chang, a self-described fiscal conservative and social moderate who plans to vote for either Arizona Sen. John McCain or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "There are many 16- and 17-year-olds - and younger - who care about politics and don't know how to get involved. Voting is the easiest and most accessible way. ... Once students understand that they themselves can indeed make a difference by checking off a box on a ballot, that's empowering, and they can use that incentive and deepen their political involvement."

It makes sense for young people to participate in their first election while they're still in high school, said Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland. "You can learn how to vote and you can learn how to read the newspaper and discuss issues," he said.

Levine disagrees with those who say 17-year-olds won't be informed or that they'll vote for fringe candidates. "Voting is voluntary, so it will only draw a small group, and that group tends to be very responsible," he said.

If Iowa is a guide, 17-year-olds could make a difference in the Maryland primary, Levine said. He pointed out that notably, the youngest voters in Iowa heavily favored Democrat Obama and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the two winners. Over the past five years, the young electorate has been split fairly evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents, he said.

"Maryland, as you know, is a more Democratic state," Levine said, "but I don't think you should jump to the conclusion that 17-year-olds can vote so it's good for the Democrats. It's more up for grabs than that."

Traditionally, political operatives have written off young voters because they think the youth turnout will be low and because teenagers are wild cards without records. Levine views the involvement of the Republican and Democratic parties in an effort to enfranchise teenagers as a good sign.

"Maybe they're idealistic and they actually think it's good for democracy," he said. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's possible."

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