The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teenagers are running for governor in Kansas. Adults are trying to stop them.

From left, Ethan Randleas, 17; Alexander Cline, 17; Jack Bergeson, 16; Tyler Ruzich, 17; and Dominic Scavuzzo, 17, at a governor candidate forum at Free State High School in Lawrence, Kan., last October. (Christopher Smith/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

In a state where the youth voting rate is even worse than the dismal national average, more than half a dozen Kansas teens are running for statewide office in 2018 — a sort of viral movement against apathy that could, in theory, make a high school student governor.

Naturally, adults are trying to stop it.

A state legislative committee moved a bill forward this week that would bar people under age 18 from running for statewide office, after a 16-year-old discovered a loophole in the state’s electoral laws and inspired his peers to flood the race.

“Oh, I could do that,” Jack Bergeson thought to himself when he realized Kansas law, while it restricts voting ages, says nothing about who can run for governor, the Kansas City Star reported last August.

So the Wichita high school junior filed to run in the Democratic primary, campaigning for health-care reform, medical marijuana and open-carry gun laws. One of his classmates, a year older than Bergeson at 17, became his running mate for lieutenant governor.

Neither of them is old enough to vote.

Some political analysts liked the idea of teens running for public office, the Star wrote, noting widespread apathy among young voters in the country. In the last nonpresidential election, census data show a mere 13 percent of Kansans ages 18 to 24 bothered to vote. The national average was just a few points higher.

American voter turnout is still lower than most other wealthy nations

Other adults mocked Bergeson’s campaign.

“People want something different,” the teen told Fox News host Jesse Watters in September. “They don’t necessarily want an experienced politician.”

Watters interrupted him with a sneering laugh. “Yeah, so they want an inexperienced politician, and you’re going to be the most inexperienced politician ever.”

“Yes,” Bergeson said, straight-faced.

“Have you thought about a jacket and tie?” Watters asked, noting the candidate’s polo shirt.

“If you dress more like everyday people, I think it shows a common relation between the candidates and the people who elect them,” Bergeson replied.

The host cracked more jokes, but the teen was not deterred. On the contrary, he talked his friend, Tyler Ruzich, into joining the governor’s race on the Republican side, where a huge slate of candidates was vying to replace former governor Sam Brownback, who stepped down to become a U.S. ambassador.

Fox News invited Ruzich to appear too — but this time respectfully, with the hosts noting his honor roll status and political experience in student government.

From there, running for governor became something of a high school trend. Four candidates, all 16 or 17, held a forum inside the Lawrence Free State high school gym in October — long before any of their adult counterparts held a debate, the Wichita Eagle wrote.

The forum looked not much different from any other, the newspaper reported. Teens in the audience murmured when a 17-year-old libertarian candidate got a jab in at Ruzich during a debate about toll roads. “You don’t drive yet,” he quipped.

In November, 17-year-old Lucy Steyer launched her run for secretary of state. “All of us teenagers running agreed we wanted to bring attention to all the elections,” she told the Hutchinson News, which noted that regardless of her age, she was one of the only female candidates in the statewide races.

More and more joined the movement. By January, NPR wrote, six teens had entered the governor’s race alone — making up about a third of the candidates.

That’’s when the adults began to fight back.

State Rep. Blake Carpenter (R) introduced a bill in the Kansas legislature in January that would bar anyone too young to vote from running for the governor’s office and other top state offices.

The bill, which passed out of a committee on Tuesday, wouldn’t affect the 2018 election if it becomes law. But going forward, Carpenter said, rules had to be laid down.

“If you are an adult in the eyes of government at age 18, you can serve in the military, you can do just about anything you want,” the Republican legislator told the Star. “As of right now, inmates can run. I also saw reports of people saying that cats and dogs could run.”

However, some in the state capitol are trying to keep teen candidacies legal. “We have all the requirements we need right now and that is, that you don’t get elected unless the people decide to elect you,” Democratic Rep. Vic Miller said, according to the Star.

Bergeson, the teen who started the movement, doesn’t sound like he especially needs adult help.

“Allow me to clear up a misconception: I am not running for governor as a stunt, or a gag,” he told the legislature in written testimony opposing the bill, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

“I am running for governor because of the minimum wage worker that has to work three jobs just to get by. I am running because our education system has been lagging behind other states. I am running to get money out of politics,” Bergeson wrote.

“But most importantly, I am running to get as many people involved in politics as possible.”

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