By Wendy Underhill
Last Tuesday, primaries were held from coast to coast: Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Idaho and Oregon.
It would be hard to have a more disparate grouping of states.
Idaho is as Republican as they come, with 403,771 registered Republicans vs. 90,230 registered Democrats. (Idaho also has a huge number of unaffiliated voters: 305,980). Right next door, Oregon is part of the “big blue wall” on the West Coast. Pennsylvania is split in terms of its voters, and split in terms of state control, with a Democrat in the governor’s mansion and the legislature firmly in GOP control.
And then there’s Nebraska, which stands alone in so many ways.
- Its Legislature is unicameral, having ditched the two-chamber system in 1934.
- Its legislators campaign and serve on a nonpartisan basis, while it’s no secret which party they align with—or that Nebraska is a solidly Republican state.
- Committee chairs are elected by the committee members, not appointed by the Senate speaker.
Nebraska stands alone among the quartet of primary states for at least one other reason. It is the only one that statutorily permits 17-year-olds (more precisely, those who will be 18 by the general election) to vote in the state’s primaries. It was the second state in the nation to adopt this policy, having done so in 1994. Ohio pioneered the way in 1981.
Looking nationwide, 16 states plus the District of Columbia allow 17-year-olds to vote, and the number is slowly growing. States may take this action because primaries are, in a sense, one piece of the general election process. Or they may do it to encourage voter participation among young people, with the hope that young voters will become lifelong voters.
Does it work? It’s hard to know. According to ElectionLine Weekly:
“Turnout in Nebraska’s primary was 24.3 percent. In Hall County, where turnout was around 22 percent, a large number of young and first-time voters hit the polls. “So I looked at some of the numbers for teenage voters, first time voters, those kids who are 17-18 years old. We had almost 350 first time voters registered for the election. Of those, 44 were 17 year olds. So I think we have some up and comer voters and I think that's encouraging for Hall County.”
—Election Commissioner Tracy Overstreet to KNTV
To see all the states with this policy, go to Voting Age for Primary Elections.
As for what’s next on the state primary calendar, Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky are up today, followed by 17 states in June.
Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s director of elections and redistricting.