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home : news : local   September 15, 2014

2/27/2014 1:13:00 AM
Government in the hands of 17-year-olds: Law makes exception for teens to vote in primary

Rachel Stella
Staff Writer

Nathanael Nelson and Sarah McKeen wanted to get their fellow high school students registered to vote in time for th­e primary election — at least, the ones who were old enough.

Legislation signed last summer by Gov. Pat Quinn allows 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election Nov. 4 to vote in the primary election March 18 — provided they registered by the Feb. 18 deadline.

Nelson and McKeen are student leaders at Ottawa Township High School’s chapter of the Junior State of America, a national organization for high school students interested in politics and government. They decided to make voting registration available at their school so students could vote in the primary.

“The meaning of the club is to make people more involved in the government and in their community,” McKeen said.

She and the other club members organized a voter registration drive in the cafeteria by posting signs, publicizing it in the school announcements and writing about it on Twitter.

Ottawa’s government teacher and the JSA faculty adviser, Steve Doerrer, became a deputy registrar for the students.

“We talk about apathy, and we talk about how the voter turnout is really low,” Doerrer said. “Getting people to register — that’s the difficult part.”

The students were able to register with Doerrer until the Feb. 18 deadline. McKeen and Nelson said they got close to the goal of 30 registrations.

If their estimates are right, their campaign made up the bulk of the county’s eligible 17-year-olds’ registrations. La Salle County clerk’s office reported 32 registrations from 17-year-olds in time to vote in the primary. Bureau and Putnam county clerks’ offices reported 107 and seven registrations, respectively, from 17-year-olds in time to vote in the primary.

About 20 students from Hall High School in Spring Valley registered during lunch Feb. 11, according to Debbie Evelhoch, assistant to the athletic director/dean of students.

The registrars were Jim Reed from the Bureau County Sheriff’s Office and Mike Miroux from the state gaming commission, Evelhoch said.

“That’s who always comes in here to register students — it’s usually the Democratic party,” she said.

The Illinois State Board of Elections reported 10,022 registrations statewide from 17-year-olds in time to vote in the March 18 primary.

Views on political participation are mixed among high school students, according McKeen and Nelson.

“A lot of them are interested in the subject and concerned in it, but they don’t think they have a lot of sway in it,” said Nelson, a senior.

McKeen, a junior, said not everyone who participated in the registration drive was thrilled to do so.

“Some of them were there because their parents were making them,” she said. “Some of the students I communicated with — they really wanted to vote in the primary.”

Nelson and McKeen hope their JSA chapter will cause more students to be conscious of current issues.

Each month, the club holds a “thought talk” to discuss a specific subject. The next talk, scheduled for Monday, will be on “politics and the Olympics,” Nelson said.

In April, the group will hold a “Fight Apathy Campaign” in which students will write an issue they care about on a sticker and wear it to school, McKeen said.

“I’d really like to see (the chapter) become a forum for discussing political, social and economic issues,” Nelson said.

Nelson wants his fellow students to put more stock in their role in the political process.

“You can’t complain if you didn’t vote,” he said. “There’s a lot of things people want to change, and the most fundamental way of doing that is to vote. If you want a change, start with voting.”

Rachel Stella can be reached at (815) 220-6933 or

Related Stories:
• 17-year-olds vote in primary

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