COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 before the fall presidential election can vote in Ohio’s presidential primary, a judge ruled Friday in a potential boost for Democrat Bernie Sanders as he fights to open elections across the country to the young people who are among his key supporters.
The judge’s decision reversed instructions from the swing state’s election chief just days before Tuesday’s primary and amid early voting. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted initially vowed to appeal the ruling, then opted not to fight it after a state appeals court set a hearing for Monday.
Husted said the timing would give his office “no effective way to responsibly make the changes necessary to implement an orderly election.” He directed the state’s 88 county elections boards Friday night to comply with the order.
“This last minute legislating from the bench on election law has to stop,” he said.
Like other Ohioans, the 17-year-olds must already be registered to vote to cast a primary ballot. Nearly 7.6 million Ohioans are registered to vote, including more than 16,000 17-year-olds, according to Husted’s office.
At least 20 other states allow 17-year-olds to vote in presidential primaries or caucuses, though rules sometimes vary based on political party, according to FairVote, an organization that tracks electoral issues.
Although the issue of whether the teens could vote in Ohio’s presidential primary race had been under dispute in the perennial battleground, they were already allowed to decide on congressional, legislative and mayoral contenders.
Nine 17-year-old registered voters in central Ohio sued Husted in state court Tuesday over his interpretation of the policy for Ohio’s youngest voters. Sanders’ campaign had also filed a federal lawsuit over it.
The Vermont senator’s campaign praised the ruling.
“This is a huge victory for 17-year-olds across Ohio,” said Brad Deutsch, an attorney for Sanders’ campaign. “Their votes for presidential nominees will now count when they vote on either Tuesday or over the weekend in early voting.”
Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye, who was asked to issue an emergency order in the state lawsuit blocking Husted’s instructions that forbade the teens from voting in the presidential primary, said in his ruling that from 1981 until 2012, no secretary of state had interpreted the law as Husted had.
“That is, it was not until 2012, when the current Secretary discovered this new limitation on 17-year old voting, that anyone holding the office publicly said that selection of Presidential convention delegates was off-limits for 17-year olds,” Frye wrote.
One of the teen plaintiffs, 17-year-old Brian Bush, of Columbus, said he was “super ecstatic” about the ruling.
“I think it’s my right to be able to vote,” Bush said in an interview. “Obviously, local and state elections are just as important. But for something as big as the president, I feel like I should be able to voice my opinion in it.”
A federal judge earlier Friday temporarily halted the lawsuit brought by Sanders’ campaign and several teen voters, saying the court would abstain from a decision until the state court ruled on the similar lawsuit.
An issue in both lawsuits was a distinction between “elect” and “nominate.”
A manual for elections officials issued last year by Husted said 17-year-olds can vote “solely on the nomination of candidates” — and not in the presidential primary “because delegates are elected and not nominated.”
But the delegates aren’t assuming any office, argued the teens’ attorney, Rachel Bloomekatz. They serve as the voters’ surrogates at a party’s nominating convention. Plus, she said, the names of delegates corresponding to each presidential candidate do not appear on the primary ballot.
Presidential candidates earn their party’s nomination by collecting a majority of the delegates awarded in primaries and caucuses.