Bernie Sanders forced to sue Ohio after rule change bars 17-year-olds from voting in primary

Ohio's Republican secretary of state quietly changed the rules to block young voters from Tuesday's election

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 9, 2016 6:10PM (EST)

  (AP/Michael Dwyer)
(AP/Michael Dwyer)

Bernie Sanders sued Ohio’s top elections official in federal court on Tuesday over a little-known rule change that bans 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election in November to vote in the state's primary next week.

In December, Secretary of State Jon A. Husted, issued a directive without much fanfare explaining that although 17-year-old voters are allowed to nominate candidates for office — meaning they can vote in other primary races for the U.S. Senate race or Ohio legislative races -- they are not allowed to directly elect an official. Hustead argued that because a primary elects delegates to a convention who then nominate a candidate, a presidential primary does not count as nominating contest, but rather an election, thereby barring participation by such 17-year-olds.

According to one Democratic state lawmaker who recently objected to the rule change, 17-year-olds have been allowed to vote in Ohio since 1981.

“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," State Rep. Kathleen Clyde said in a statement over the weekend.

But according to Hustead's office, such precedent for barring 17-year-olds during presidential primaries exists. Husted's spokesperson Josh Eck told The Columbus Dispatch that "this statute and its interpretation have been used for years," citing a 2002 directive from Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell blocking 17-year-olds from voting in presidential primaries.

"We are following the same rules Ohio has operated under in past primaries, under both Democrat and Republican administrations," Hustead said in a statement, apparently referring to a 2008 directive from Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Although Brunner's directive did stipulate that 17-year-olds could only nominate candidates, it did not specify whether presidential primaries were nominating contest or elections.

The Sanders campaign, which has consistently posted overwhelming support with young voters, accused the Republican secretary of state of orchestrating an “unconstitutional attempt to block young voters” that is doubly discriminatory because federal census data shows that young voters “are more heavily African-American and Latino than older groups of voters.”

"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," the candidate said of the rule change in a statement, according to CNN.

For his part, Hustead said in a statement that, "I welcome this lawsuit and I am very happy to be sued on this issue because the law is crystal clear."

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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2016 Democratic Primary Bernie Sanders Election 2016 Elections 2016 Lawsuit Ohio Voter Suppresion