On Election Day, many 18-year-old New Yorkers stepped into the voting booth for the first time to participate in our country’s democratic process. Despite being able to vote in the general election, they were legally barred from voting in the primary election because they had not turned 18 yet. As a result, many of these “new adults” avoided the ballots completely. Excluding 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the time of the general election in the primary process hurts voters and the nation’s democratic process.
In more than half of the states in the country, including New York, soon-to-be 18-year-olds are shut out of the primary process, despite being eligible to vote in the general election.
Limiting participation from this specific demographic in the New York primary, as well as in any state primary, is a betrayal of the democratic process. The primary process is critical to the U.S. electoral system, and people are being denied participation under a flawed premise. Individuals who will have full voting rights by the time of the general election should be allowed and encouraged to participate. To disallow this subset from full participation in the primaries is to leave them out of what is often the more important election in New York.
In many instances and depending on geographic location, the typically elected party will resolutely win the state in the general election. In New York politics at both the state and federal level, very few elections are competitive. For example, only five out of the 27 House District elections featured less than a 10 percent margin of victory in 2014, and New York has not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1984. Preventing participation in the primary often leaves these younger voters without a say in who will most likely win that state’s electoral votes.
While the 26th Amendment grants suffrage rights to U.S. citizens 18 and older, it does not contain stipulations that prevent 17-year-olds from participating in state primaries. The parties themselves hold the power in their nomination procedures, and can petition to authorize the participation of soon-to-be 18-year-olds in the primary election. Doing so could result in potential benefits for political parties, as they can gain new support that may last a lifetime.
It is necessary for state legislation to be passed to ensure that those who will be 18 by the time of the general election have the right to participate in the New York primary. Leaving control in the hands of political parties gives them the opportunity to directly influence who votes. This takes away from the nation’s democratic process as it opens the door for strategic voter suppression and inconsistent age requirements.
Proponents of the exclusion argue that individuals in this age group do not have the maturity, knowledge or experience to handle the tremendous responsibility of voting. It is indeed reasonable to desire these attributes in young people who wish to vote, but a cutoff at 18 years of age is an arbitrary benchmark that, in this case, serves to reduce voter turnout.
Maturity, knowledge and experience will not miraculously appear in people on their 18th birthday. In a study conducted by Rutgers-Camden professors Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins, they found that political knowledge was approximately the same in people just under and just over the age requirement, lending credibility to the notion that there should not be such a strict cutoff. Given that this group of people would be eligible to vote in the general election that features the presidential nominee, there is no sense in limiting their participation in the primary.
Many 18-year-old voters in New York, including some students here at Baruch College, are now asked to vote for various levels of representation despite having been voiceless in crucial decision-making processes just a few short months ago. Legislation must be introduced to allow these individuals to participate in New York primaries.