A new Illinois law—casually referred to as ‘Suffrage at 17’—now extends the right to vote to 17-year-olds across the state. Since this innovative policy took effect on January 1, nearly 3,500 suburban Cook County 17-year-olds have registered to vote. This means that for the first time in Illinois history, the number of young people who will have the opportunity to participate in a primary state election while still enrolled in high school has drastically increased.
The implications of allowing 17-year-old high school students to vote can be particularly advantageous to developing their civic engagement habits and rounding out civic education initiatives in schools. Students who are able to vote while still enrolled in high school not only have the potential to receive immediate encouragement from their teachers to vote in elections, but the election itself also becomes an experiential lesson that can be supplemented by rich, relevant, and valuable classroom discussions on issues surrounding the campaigns and voting. It can and has been argued that students who experience a comprehensive civics curriculum are more likely to develop regular voting habits and maintain higher levels of civic engagement. With this new ‘Suffrage at 17’ initiative, an hypothesis can likewise be drawn that students who vote while still in high school have a richer electoral experience because of the potential for corresponding and enriching classroom activities, which can ultimately set a strong and positive foundation for a lifelong commitment to civic participation.
In addition to them being valuable resources to young voters, schools are also prime spots for registering youth. Earlier this month, Cook County Clerk David Orr, with the help of civic and community organizations like Mikva Challenge and the League of Women Voters, organized “Democracy Week” in schools throughout the suburbs as a way to raise awareness about the new law and to hold registration drives prior to the Feb. 21 registration deadline. Student registration numbers were, on average, in the hundreds at individual schools, with nearly 5,500 17- and 18-year-olds in total demonstrating their enthusiasm to be civic actors by becoming voters. Commenting on the value of the new law extending suffrage to 17-year-olds, Orr explained, “A habit of lifelong voting is born early, so the hope is these teenagers will vote in the March 18 primary and every election that follows.”
While an initiative allowing 17-year-olds to vote is not without precedent, it is still in its infancy and not yet a widely-implemented reform strategy. However, the idea is beginning to gain traction, and a report recently released from the Center of Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) lists it as a recommendation for building a new generation of informed and engaged civic actors.