by Michelle Manchir
March 3, 2014
As she juggles Advanced Placement classes and baby-sitting three nights a week during her final semester of high school, Neli Farahmandpour is researching candidates and where they stand on issues she cares about, like the cost of state college tuition and public schools funding.
She won't turn 18 until after this month's primary election, but she'll get to vote under a new state law that allows most 17-year-olds in Illinois to cast a ballot.
"It's not illogical," said Farahmandpour, during a recent comparative politics class at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. "If you're going to be picking the big players (in November), then why not be able to pick the ones that are going to be in the big election?"
Advocates say the change allows youth to develop voting habits early, a key to ensuring they turn into lifelong voters. Critics have questioned whether teens are engaged enough to cast meaningful votes. While it remains to be seen how many 17-year-olds turn out to vote on March 18, more than 9,000 of them have registered to do so in the city and suburbs, helped in many cases by clerk's offices partnering with school districts to host registration drives.
At Stevenson High, more than 400 17- and 18-year-olds registered during the school year. Last year, teachers and students at the north suburban school proposed a bill to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections as long as they turned 18 by the November general election. It's now law.
Recruiting teens interested in the election process has been easy, since they see voting as a sign of adulthood, said civics teacher Andrew Conneen, who helped the students get the bill passed.
"Many of them take it very seriously," Conneen said. "Not just registering and voting but also educating themselves and going out and getting involved."
On the Southwest Side, students at Gage Park High School have not only registered to vote, but some will serve as election judges during the March 18 primary election.
Civics teacher Victor Harbison, who helped organize a voter registration drive at the school, said he discusses political issues relevant to his students' lives, like higher education and access to jobs. Harbison said he also helps them understand that politicians may neglect neighborhoods in which constituents don't vote.
David Rosas, who said he'll turn 18 at the end of May, said because of those discussions in the classroom he feels like voting is a responsibility and he "definitely" plans to be at the polls.
"A lot of people in this community complain about how we don't have a lot of good infrastructure or resources, but if we vote, we have a better chance of getting those types of things," he said.
Classmate Courtney Taylor, 17, said being able to cast a vote makes her feel like her opinions matter. Taylor said she's concerned about the state's economic health and job availability after having difficulty finding part-time work.
"It's not about old people all the time," Taylor said. "Young people, they experience stuff, too. Young people need a voice."
The measure allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries found widespread support in the Illinois House and Senate last year. Some foes, however, questioned whether 17-year-olds can cast meaningful votes.
"I don't know that they're really engaged and understand what's going on politically all the time," said Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Republican from Wheaton who cast one of 22 "no" votes in the House. Ives said the policy could set a precedent for lowering the age for other privileges. "What's the next law we're going to send back because you're going to be a certain age at a certain date?"
The voting measure was sponsored in the House by Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein and Democratic Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills, who said she was happy to take on the legislation because she frequently sees young people at events in her district.
"Wherever I go to talk with youth, they want to be heard, they want to be engaged," she said. The law allows teens to vote in primaries for federal and statewide offices. Sente has a follow-up bill this spring that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in local primary elections if they turn 18 by the regular election that follows.
Illinois joins 11 other states that allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they'll be 18 by the November election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The change doesn't generate a lot of controversy because it doesn't change the general electorate, said Matthew Streb, a Northern Illinois University political science professor who has researched voting and elections. In the primary election, after all, voters are merely nominating the candidates who will run in November, so if anything, the law changes only the Democratic and Republican electorates, he said.
Conneen, whose classroom walls are lined with campaign signs from a range of Illinois candidates for governor, dismissed any sentiment that the voters-to-be in his class will choose only a Democratic ballot since they are young. "Our students kind of naturally tend to be bipartisan," he said of his class.
Voter turnout is typically low for Illinois primary elections, especially in nonpresidential years. In February 2010, overall turnout was 23 percent. Streb said he suspects allowing the teens to vote likely will have only a minimal effect. "There won't be many people who qualify under the new law and that age group is not likely to turn out in high numbers in any event," he said in an email.
To be sure, there are 17-year-olds, even at Stevenson High, who don't much care about the upcoming primary election — or voting in general, said senior Lexi Schmidt, one of Conneen's students who's been trained as a deputy registrar. Schmidt said while she's helped more than 30 of her classmates register, there are some she can't convince to sign up, despite heated discussions at her lunch table.
"If people really started caring, voting, it would make such a difference," she said.
Voter registration ended Feb. 18, but there's a safety net for 17-year-olds and everybody else. Through March 15, local election authorities offer grace period registration, in which voters can register, change their address or file name changes, but it must happen in person with two forms of identification that show a current address. During grace period registration, voters must also cast a ballot on the spot.
Schmidt, who's also signed up to be an election judge, has interned in a state representative's campaign and hopes to major in political science when she attends college next year, said she hasn't completely given up on her uninterested peers in the cafeteria, telling them: "If you change your mind, come to me."