Archive for Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By fluke, 16-year-olds get the vote

May 21, 2003

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— Sixteen-year-old Andrew Brown smiles at the thought: He cannot legally buy cigarettes or drink a beer, but come September, he will be able to vote for mayor in the city's primary.

A scheduling peculiarity will give thousands of Baltimore 16-year-olds an opportunity to cast a ballot.

The real-life civics lesson was made possible this way: City voters decided in a referendum a few years ago to move the mayoral general election from 2003 to 2004 so that it would coincide with the presidential race. But only state lawmakers can change the date of a primary, and they adjourned in April without moving it closer to the general election.

As a result, there will be a 14-month gap between Baltimore's primary Sept. 9 and next year's general election.

Maryland law allows residents to vote in a primary if they reach 18 by the day of the general election, which is Nov. 2, 2004. Because of the 14-month gap, 16-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election will be eligible to vote in the primary.

Activists in other states have been fighting for years to achieve what Baltimore's teenagers received accidentally. In Iowa, Alaska, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine and Texas, youth advocates have worked to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote. In Palm Beach, Fla., Miranda Rosenberg, 15, has created an online petition drive -- www.voteat16.com -- to amend the Florida Constitution and lower the voting age.

In 1971, as young men were being sent to Vietnam, the 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

Some experts are leery about allowing 16- and 17-year-olds in the voting booth.

"If you're old enough to fight and die and kill for a country, you ought to be old enough to vote on the policies of the country," Curtis Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. But "I just don't think 16-year-olds have the maturity to make such decisions."

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