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State considers lowering voting age to 17
By Amber Krosel | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/26/2008 12:27 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- Few legal rites of passage exist at age 17.

There's the opportunity to see R-rated movies like "Strange Wilderness" without Mom or Dad. Or buy an M-rated video game like "Halo 3."

With parental permission they can join the military. And a 17-year-old caught breaking the law faces adult penalties and prisons.

Now, some lawmakers are considering opening the door for 17-year-olds to vote.

Already 11 states, including neighboring Indiana and Iowa, let 17-year-olds vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the general election.

But if a state constitutional amendment here passes, Illinois would be unique in allowing those age 17 to vote with no strings attached.

"I think we need to include more and more people in the process," said state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and the amendment's sponsor. "I wanted Illinois to break new ground here."

The proposal comes as the youth vote has emerged with newfound political power this campaign season, particularly in the Democratic contest for president.

In the crucial Iowa caucuses earlier this year, Chicago Democrat Barack Obama openly courted high school and college students. They helped deliver a resounding early victory that not only established him as a contender but also now has him leading the delegate count as he and Hillary Clinton vie for the nomination.

Obama isn't the first candidate to court young voters. Four years ago, then-Democratic candidate Howard Dean was supposed to ride an Internet-spread wave of young voter support to the Democratic nomination. But when young voters didn't turn out, Dean's campaign sank.

Historically, that's been the problem -- getting young people to actually vote.

Advocates say lowering the voting age to 17 would help get and keep younger people interested and involved in elections and their government.

"At that age, generally, you are still living at home going to high school. You have roots in a community and connection to school, friends and family," said Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the Washington-based National Youth Rights Association. The group has been pushing voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds in several states.

By age 18, he said, people are starting college or seeking jobs and voting likely isn't their top priority.

So far, the efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

In 2004, California lawmakers considered lowering the voting age to 14 but not giving teen votes the same weight as adult votes. For instance, a 14-year-old's vote would count as only a quarter-vote. Although it grabbed headlines, the proposal was never considered by the full California legislature.

Similar, 17-year-old voting rights plans are pending in several states. Critics contend such proposals would give undue political influence to a population with little real-life experience. Curtis Gans, a nationally renowned voting expert, has called lower voting age ideas "dumb."

Here in Illinois, the proposal faces a long road, challenging history, and even if successful, 17-year-olds would not be able to vote in the November election.

First, supporters must garner support from 60 percent of lawmakers before May to get the question on the November ballot. Then Illinois voters would have the final say on the voting age.

It's been a while since the state's voters considered the issue. A 1970 Constitutional Convention in Illinois placed a question on the ballot for voters to decide whether the voting age should be lowered to 18 or remain at 21. Illinois voters chose 21.

A year later, as thousands of drafted teens were fighting and dying in Vietnam, the 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gave 18-year-olds the right to vote in any federal or state election. And that amendment does not bar states from lowering the voting age.

Voting younger

States that permit 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election if the voter will turn 18 before the general election

Indiana

Iowa

Kentucky

Maine

Maryland

Mississippi

Nebraska

North Carolina

Ohio

Oregon

Virginia

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures (www.ncsl.org)