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17-year-olds register to vote for first time

A poster South ElgHigh School encourages students register vote. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media

A poster at South Elgin High School encourages students to register to vote. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 16, 2014 6:24AM

SOUTH ELGIN — During the 1960s, 19-year-olds complained that they were old enough to be drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam, but not old enough to vote for the president and congressmen sending them there. So the voting age was lowered nationwide from 21 to 18.

But now it’s legal in Illinois for some young people to vote even before that. Under a state law that went into effect Jan. 1, someone can vote at age 17 in a primary election — such as the one scheduled on March 18 to pick each party’s candidates for governor, congressmen and some local offices — if the teen will turn 18 before the general election related to that primary, which in this case will occur Nov. 4.

Burning to let his students take advantage of that, South Elgin High School civics teacher Walt Gola arranged for a team of registrars from the Elgin Area League of Women Voters and the Kane County Clerk’s Office to come into the high school Tuesday and register eligible senior students.

Gola explained that every senior at South Elgin High takes either civics or economics this semester. So during each such class, the teacher on Tuesday played a video explaining the new law and encouraged students to go down to the registration area, which was set up in a teacher conference room.

The exact number of students who registered was not yet available. But a queue of four to 10 students lined up outside the registration area for most of the day.

“We’ve been to South Elgin High twice before, but then we could only register students who were going to turn 18 by the next election,” said League of Women Voters volunteer Dennis Schwank, a retired computer systems analyst.

In the past, Schwank said, the League has registered just 75 to 80 students each visit, out of a senior class of about 600. But virtually all 600 should qualify to register this time if they are U.S. citizens.

“We’ve tried to get in and do this at other high schools in the Elgin area, but we’ve struck out,” Schwank said. “It all depends on the school’s principal and teachers.”

Mock election

LWV volunteer Barbara Evans, a retired English teacher at Larkin High School in Elgin, said that shortly before the 2008 presidential election pitting Barack Obama against John McCain, the LWV, School District U46 and county officials even were able to set up a mock election using the same kind of ballot and voting machines that Kane voters would use in the real election. The ballots even showed the names of the real office-seekers that the students’ parents would be voting on a few days later.

“(Some people) originally wanted us to have Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck running for president, but we said that no kid is going to take that seriously. We needed to use the names of the real candidates,” Evans said.

She said the LWV wanted to hold a similar mock election when Obama ran against Mitt Romney in 2012. But this time the group was unable to obtain a state grant to cover the expense of moving the voting machines and printing the ballots.

Gola said getting kids registered as soon as they can, through their school, might help increase the Election Day turnout among young people, which almost always is lower than that of middle-aged and elderly voters.

“Studies show that if people vote in the first election (they’re eligible for), they’ll continue to vote in future elections,” the civics teacher said.

Presidential interest

Most students waiting to register tended to be knowledgeable and interested in presidential politics, but less up to speed on the lower offices that will be up for election in this “off year.”

Jason Hite, 17, of Elgin said he probably will vote in March but hasn’t yet researched the candidates much. But he is sure of two things, Hite said — he will vote in the Republican primary and he wishes he had been legally able to vote against Barack Obama two years ago.

“This is a blue state now, and that’s one reason I want to get out of here and move to Arkansas after I graduate,” Hite said.

But the students lined up to register seemed more likely to wish they could have supported Obama in 2012.

Brittany Carson, 17, of Elgin said she wants to study biochemistry and become a doctor. She said that last presidential election she would have voted for the president because she likes the concept of Obamacare.

Another 17-year-old, business student Brian Winsel of South Elgin, said he didn’t pay much attention to politics in the past “but I’ve started getting into it now as I’m getting older. A lot of the stuff going on is affecting people in my generation.”

Like the other students questioned, Winsel said he has not yet decided on a favorite candidate for governor or Congress, but “I consider myself Democratic” and he would have voted for Obama in 2012.

“Obama won both years, but I wish I could have helped him with one more vote,” agreed 18-year-old Harsh Jhaveri, who said he plans to move to New York City after college and start a career in finance or real estate.

“I liked Obama’s approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, pulling us out, and I like Obamacare even though that could have been executed better,” Jhaveri said.

Jhaveri said his sources of political information include watching CNN, reading newspapers, “and sometimes my dad fills me in on everything.”

“I don’t really know much about the primary election, but now that I’m registered, I’ll learn more,” said 17-year-old Jessica Malatia. She confessed that she rarely watches or reads news media. But she said that in 2012 “I liked Obama’s ideas about taxes and the environment.”

Gola said modern Americans of all ages may take the right to vote too much for granted compared to our ancestors. For example, elections reportedly began taking place on Tuesdays because that gave the 18th- and 19th-century voter enough time to attend church on Sunday, then spend a whole day traveling on Monday via horseback or foot to reach a far-off polling place if necessary.

The last day to register for the March primary is Feb. 18. Among other places, Kane County residents can register at the county clerk’s office, at 719 S. Batavia Ave. Building B in Geneva, or at local libraries. For more information, call 630-232-5990 or visit

Besides being at least 18 by the time of the next general election (on Nov. 4), someone registering must be a U.S. citizen, have lived in their precinct for at least 30 days before the next election, and provide two forms of identification, at least one of which must include their current name and address.

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