A national voting rights group with nine teenage plaintiffs on Tuesday sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, saying the teens should be allowed to vote in the March 15 presidential election. In addition CNN reported that Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is suing over the same issue.
The teens’ lawsuit filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court by a lawyer for Fair Elections Legal Network claims Husted is misinterpreting the state law that has since 1981 allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 by November.
“The students in this case are excited about voting in the presidential primary. They’ve been following the races, doing their research and they have a statuatory right under the Ohio elections (law) to vote,” said Rachel Bloomekatz, a Columbus attorney representing the students.
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Husted, a Republican who has been a frequent target of voting rights advocates, said his interpretation of the law is not different than his predecessors, Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Kenneth Blackwell. And three local board of elections officials - from both the Democrat and Republican parties - and Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials, all agreed that Husted is interpreting the law as it has always been interpreted.
“I welcome this lawsuit and I am very happy to be sued on this issue because the law is crystal clear,” Husted said in a news release reacting to the lawsuit filed in Columbus.
Ohio law says only people who are at least 18 years old can elect people to office, Husted said.
Husted says 17-year-olds who will be 18 by November can vote in the primary but only to nominate candidates - such as partisan candidates running to become their party’s nominee for Congress or the nominee to run for county commission.
But because the primary vote on presidential candidates actually involves electing delegates, not nominating the presidential candidate, the 17-year-olds cannot vote on that race, Husted said.
They also can’t vote on the party committee candidates running on March 15 - because they are running to be elected, not to be nominated for the General Election. Nor can the teens vote on property tax levies and other ballot issues.
“That’s been the policy for the last two secretaries of state,” Husted said in an interview. “This is one that just comes out of the blue because we are doing this exactly how this has always been done.”
Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent, has challenged Husted’s interpretation of the law, which comes in the form of a directive in the 2015 guide for elections officials.
“It was brought to my attention by some voting rights advocates and I was pretty shocked and thought that my reading of the law was clear that these 17-year-olds should have the opportunity,” she said. She said several county boards have counted the presidential votes of 17-year-olds but she declined to say which ones.
“I think that is a ludicrous claim and if she is going to claim that than she should prove it,” said Joshua Eck, spokesman for Husted.
One of the state’s longest serving elections officials, Steve Harsman, deputy director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections said 17-year-olds have never been able to vote in the presidential primary. He said the young people may think they have voted because they fill out the same ballot as adults. But the ballots cast by the teens are segregated and their votes are not counted for anything but nominating candidates, said Harsman, a Democrat.
Republican Jan Kelly, Montgomery County board director, and Democrat Jocelyn Bucaro, deputy director of the Butler County Board of Elections, agree with Harsman. As does Ockerman, who said the latest hullabaloo is pretty typical for Ohio.
“It’s Ohio and it’s a presidential year,” Ockerman said. “It’s the season for everyone to question everything that happens in a presidential election.”
Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.