One Teen's Campaign To Restore Voting Rights

Sarah Boltuck and her father, Richard, fought to restore the right for Maryland 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election.
Sarah Boltuck and her father, Richard, fought to restore the right for Maryland 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

Sarah Boltuck's senior year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda was transformed by a rejection letter -- not from a college, but from the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

It said she could not vote in the February primary because she was not yet 18. Boltuck thought differently. She fought it all the way to the state elections board and the attorney general's office, and she won.

Last month, Boltuck, along with her father and a sympathetic state senator, persuaded Maryland's top legal minds to restore the right of suffrage to at least 50,000 teens who will turn 18 between the Feb. 12 primary and the Nov. 4 election.

"I thought that was one of my rights as a citizen of Maryland," said Boltuck, who will be 18 in July. "I had assumed that when I registered to vote, it'd be no problem."

She called attention to a little-noticed change in interpretation of state law. Maryland was one of nine states, including Virginia, that allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they reached 18 by the general election. (The District does not.) But the Maryland State Board of Elections quietly halted the practice in December 2006 in response to a state court ruling.

Maryland's primary will be held a week after Super Tuesday, in an election "where generational politics is the fault line," said Jamie B. Raskin, a constitutional law scholar who represents Silver Spring and Takoma Park in the Maryland Senate. Boltuck and her friends at Whitman are part of an age bracket unusually energized this election cycle, particularly in support of Boltuck's candidate, Democrat Barack Obama.

"People just really want to get their voice heard," she said between sips of mocha at a cafe near her Bethesda home.

Obama has been courting young voters. His first public campaign stop in Maryland, for example, was an October visit to Prince George's Community College.

Young voters seem to be responding. They figured prominently in Obama's Iowa victory and strong second-place New Hampshire showing. A majority of Democratic voters ages 17 to 29 chose Obama in Iowa, and a majority of 18- to 24-year-olds picked him in New Hampshire, the largest share of voters in any age group to back a single candidate of either party, according to CNN entrance and exit polls. On the Internet site Facebook, a mecca for high school and college students, the largest group devoted to Obama has more than 400,000 members.

"That identification with younger voters is not by accident," said David Paulson, communication director of Maryland's Democratic Party.

Boltuck wanted to vote for Obama badly enough to launch, along with her father, a two-person lobbying campaign late last year. They tried to drum up news coverage. When that failed, Richard Boltuck submitted a letter to the editorial page of The Washington Post. It was published Dec. 2.

Some students in Anne Arundel County saw the letter and launched a Facebook group called "I'll be 18, so why can't I vote in my primary election?" More than 300 people joined.

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