Bernie Sanders Fights for Rights of 17-Year-Old Voters

March 8th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is suing the state of Ohio over voting laws that block certain 17-year-olds from voting in the state's presidential primary.

Sanders' campaign alleges that, in previous elections, 17-year-olds in Ohio who were turning 18 by election day could cast a vote for their candidate of choice in the state's presidential primary. They claim that a 2015 directive from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted changed that, and they're now suing him, along with a national voting rights organization, over those changes.


The regulations are very wonky. Here's how they work.

While 17-year-olds still have the right to vote in the state primary, which will take place on March 15, they're limited to "nominating" candidates rather than "electing" them. Semantics are important here. In Ohio, voting for a presidential candidate in the primary is actually considered "electing" a delegate to represent voters. Therefore — because 17-year-olds are barred from "electing" candidates — young voters are ineligible to vote in the presidential primary.

This is all especially important for Sanders, who has won a majority of the millennial vote in recent primaries. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, more than 80 percent of millennial Democrats cast their primary ballot for Sanders. And USA Today reports that Ohio is among 10 primary states where young people could hold sway over the 2016 presidential election.

primary states

"It is an outrage that the secretary of state in Ohio is going out of his way to keep young people — significantly African-American young people, Latino young people — from participating," Sanders said in a press release. He filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday alongside six 17-year-old plaintiffs who planned to vote in the Ohio presidential primary.

Husted says Ohio's voting rules haven't actually changed.

Husted, for his part, maintains that nothing about the state's voting laws has changed. In a statement, he said "I welcome this lawsuit and I am very happy to be sued on this issue because the law is crystal clear."

"We are following the same rules Ohio has operated under in past primaries, under both Democrat and Republican administrations," Husted said. "There is nothing new here. If you are going to be 18 by the November election, you can vote, just not on every issue."

Something even more confusing is going on here.

According to the Dayton Daily News, 17-year-olds were never actually allowed to vote in presidential primaries; they just thought they were.

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.

Ohio's laws are apparently so confusing, that the Buckeye state is frequently listed among those which allow older 17-year-olds to vote in presidential primaries.

Here's the deal with the lawsuit.

Nine 17-year-old plaintiffs in Ohio joined the Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights organization, in a lawsuit against Husted this month after Ohio Rep. Kathleen Clyde released a statement criticizing the secretary of state for the supposed election manual amendment, The Columbus Dispatch reports.

Jon Husted

"I was astonished to learn that 17-year-old Ohioans who will legally become adults before the November election are now being prohibited from having a say in the direction of their country at the presidential ballot box during the primary," Clyde said, who apparently didn't realize that the votes of 17-year-olds weren't being counted in the past. "Ohio’s pro-voter practice that welcomes young adults into the process has been on the books since 1981."

"Secretary Husted's latest underhanded, backroom attack on our most fundamental freedom should have us all concerned — about this and about his repeated claims he has made it easier to vote in Ohio — when in fact he continues to find ways to make it harder," Clyde added.

ATTN: has reached out to Clyde for comment about the assertion that the votes of 17-year-olds weren't counted in the past. We will update the story when she responds.