Illinois 17-year-olds cast first votes in March 18 primary

Posted Online: March 15, 2014, 11:34 pm
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KERRY LESTER, Associated Press

PALATINE, Ill. (AP) As a high school senior in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, Kira Swearingen's weeks are packed with schoolwork, babysitting, interning at a local elementary school and coaching cheerleading.

Yet, the Fremd High School student is also carving out time to research the campaigns of Illinois primary candidates reading articles, scrolling through their Facebook pages and campaign websites and talking out the issues at her family dinner table.

Swearingen is one of more than 11,000 17-year-old students across the state who registered to vote in the primary under a new state law, an opportunity many newly christened voters say is more about the experience than any political allegiance as they head to their local polling place for the first time.

'I think it's good to see what it's like to go in there and vote before next November,' Swearingen said.

The number of freshly registered teens is a small fraction of the more 7.4 million total voters registered across the state, according to the state board of elections, and isn't expected to make much of a dent in the outcome of various primary races. But advocates of the new law say the change will result in making more teens lifelong, civic-minded voters.

'I stress rigor, relevance and relationships,' Paul Houston, global studies department chair at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, said. 'This really gets to the relevance. Why are we teaching kids all of this stuff if it doesn't relate to them?'

The law change was spurred by a proposal from Stevenson High School students and civic teachers. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills and Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, the measure passed with broad bipartisan support in both the state House and Senate. Signed into law last summer by Gov. Pat Quinn on Stevenson's football field in Lincolnshire, Illinois became the 20th state to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, provided they are 18 by the November election.

Stevenson government teacher Andrew Conneen had pushed for the legislation for more than a decade.

'Despite the long journey of the bill, we always knew the heavy lifting was going to be getting 17-year-olds to take advantage of the law,' he said.

Stevenson began working almost as soon as classes began last fall to make students aware of the opportunity to register come January, and of opportunities to connect with local political campaigns. Conneen said the school works closely with the Mivka Challenge, a nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to encouraging civic leadership among young people.

Voter registration ended in mid-February, but a 'grace period' of registration ran through Saturday.

In Lyons Township, Houston said more than 400 teens registered to vote in a single day this semester, thanks to a combined effort by National Honor Society members, the LaGrange-area League of Women Voters, and a campaign by teachers, who spoke to students about the opportunity in their classrooms and sent emails home to parents.

Many signups were done during lunch hours in the school cafeteria.

'When it's made that easy, then they're more likely to exercise their right to register,' Maureen Larsen, of the League of Women Voters, said.

With a four-way contested Republican gubernatorial primary, Fremd High School social studies teacher Jason Spoor said that race has generated a bit more excitement among some of his students.

Yet, Cook County Clerk David Orr points out that even if a number of the county's roughly 5,500 teen voters vote Republican, their overall impact is still 'swimming upstream against the overall political implications of the (largely Democratic) county.'

At the same time, with voter turnout being traditionally low in nonpresidential primaries, Orr said getting students excited about the new opportunity helps 'push against the general lack of interest.'

Still, despite successful drives at a number of high schools around the state, others have seen more tepid results, as students have been slow to take advantage of the new law change.

John Burns, a Granite High School senior in Granite City and the first student in the state to register to vote, helped run a registration drive where only 20 students registered, a number he says he hopes will increase with time.

'I think it really makes sense,' he said. 'All of my friends should be voting in November, so it makes sense for us to have the option to nominate the candidates we'll be voting for then in the March election.'


Local events heading

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