By Rafael Guerrero
Gov. Pat Quinn and other prospective governor candidates might be targeting a new voting group during the primary elections next year: 17-year-olds.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 43-9 to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, but only if they turn 18 by the November general election. The 17-year-olds could vote in person as well as cast absentee and early ballots in the primary.
The House passed the bill last month, and a Quinn spokesman said the governor supports the measure. Illinois would become the 13th state to allow this group of teens to vote in primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sponsoring Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, suggested many first-time voters are "well informed of what's going on" but because of their birth dates may not get a say which candidates come out of the primary.
"I think they should have the opportunity to vote for the people that will represent them in the general election," Link said. "I think this is a positive step forward to getting more voter participation."
The bill does not change the voting age for general elections, which remain restricted to individuals 18 or older on Election Day.
Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, questioned why primaries should be treated differently from the fall elections.
Righter said "keeping the playing field level" in primary and general elections regarding who gets to vote is important because in some areas the primary automatically decides who wins in November. Righter, who opposed the legislation, called voting "much more of a privilege" and "more of a duty, quite frankly" rather than a right.
"Sometimes we fail younger people not because of what we don't provide for them or give them but because of what we don't expect of them," Righter said. "We've determined in this state that 18 years is the appropriate age for someone to exercise their ability to vote. I don't think we ought to make a distinction despite" the good intention.
Link, who also is chairman of the Lake County Democrats, said the legislation was inspired by a teacher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. A previous attempt stalled a few years ago.
This time around, the news was better. Link phoned the classroom shortly after the bill passed. Having watched the debate live on the Web, students were excited, the senator said.
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