Victory for Ohio’s 17-Year-Old Primary Voters

By Stephen Mortellaro March 18, 2016
Jon-Husted
Ohio Sec. of State Jon Husted addresses high-school students about the importance of voting, shortly after issuing a directive designed to prevent high-school students from voting. Image courtesy of http://www.sos.state.oh.us

After decades of Ohio’s primary elections being open to 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the general election, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted decided last December to single-handedly disenfranchise all 17-year-olds who wished to vote in one of the most important primary elections in the country: Ohio’s presidential primary.

For a time, this attempt to discriminate against young voters was successful: Husted managed to reject the votes of an unknown number of eligible 17-year-olds who cast their votes for president during Ohio’s early voting period. Fortunately, thanks to a lawsuit brought by Project Vote’s ally the Fair Elections Legal Network, an Ohio state court declared Husted’s rule illegal shortly before the state’s March 15th primary election. This restored the right to vote to eligible 17-year-olds that had not voted before the court announced its decision, and it is a resounding success for the voting rights community and Ohio’s 17-year-old primary voters.

But Husted’s rule has been illegal since the moment he made it up, and he should never have been able to deny the right to vote to even one eligible 17-year-old. Project Vote recognized this last September, when Husted first proposed preventing 17-year-olds from voting in presidential primary elections. Together with the Fair Elections Legal Network, Project Vote submitted comments to Husted’s office telling Husted that his proposed rule violated state law.

The problem we pointed out was plain as day. An Ohio statute says:

At a primary election every qualified elector who is or will be on the day of the next general election eighteen or more years of age, and who is a member of or is affiliated with the political party whose primary election ballot he desires to vote, shall be entitled to vote such ballot at the primary election. (Ohio Revised Statutes § 3503.011).

This statutory provision says that 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election can vote in their political party’s primary election, and it gives no exceptions. But Husted’s rule said this:

In presidential primary elections, a 17-year-old voter is not permitted to vote for presidential delegates, because delegates are elected not nominated. (Ohio Election Official Manual, page 7-5)

This rule flatly contradicted the statute. The justification the rule gave—that primary voters “elect” presidential delegates in a primary instead of “nominating” them—is a semantic distinction that the statute itself does not recognize. Ohio’s Secretary of State can interpret election statutes, but he cannot simply make up exceptions to statutes that he does not like.

Astonishingly, not only did Husted propose a rule that so obviously violated state law, he pushed forward with the rule even after Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network submitted comments pointing out how his proposal was illegal. Only months later, when a state judge forced Husted to accept the reality that Ohio law allows eligible 17-year-olds to vote in presidential primary elections, was this rule finally stopped.

By then, it was too late for many 17-year-olds who may have voted during the early voting period for this year’s presidential primary election. But this story should serve as an example to states across the country that attempts to violate the right to vote will not go unchallenged, and that—rather than wasting time and resources trying to fight losing battles to stop eligible people from voting—states should protect and expand the rights of all eligible people to cast a vote that counts.