COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 before the fall election can vote in Ohio’s presidential primary, a judge ruled Friday, reversing instructions from the swing state’s elections chief just days before the primary and amid early voting.
The state’s Republican secretary of state initially vowed to appeal the ruling in the lawsuit, then opted not to fight it after a state appeals court set a hearing for Monday, the day before Ohio’s primary election.
Jon Husted said the timing would give his office “no effective way to responsibly make the changes necessary to implement an orderly election.”
Husted said he planned to direct the state’s 88 county elections boards to comply with the order.
“Our elections system needs more stability and less chaos,” he said. “This last minute legislating from the bench on election law has to stop.”
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.
The ruling could provide a boost for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Younger voters are among his key supporters, and his campaign also filed a federal lawsuit over the policy for 17-year-old voters.
Whether the teens could vote in the presidential primary race has been under dispute in the perennial battleground, though they were already allowed to decide on congressional, legislative and mayoral contenders.
Husted had said Ohio’s rules and constitution didn’t permit 17-year-olds to vote for president in the primary, and he didn’t allow them to vote in Ohio’s last presidential primary, the first elections under his tenure.
Nine 17-year-old registered voters in central Ohio sued him on Tuesday in state court over his interpretation.
Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye, who was asked to issue an emergency order blocking Husted’s instructions that forbade the teens from voting in the presidential primary, said in his ruling that from 1981 to 2012, no previous 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.
At issue 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.
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 in the case until the state court ruled on the similar lawsuit.