Legislation would expand democracy and reduce confusion
By Alyssa Birkeland, Current Staff
At least one vote was improperly cast during Wisconsin’s primary election. This wasn’t a case of voter fraud, though. It was a case of voter confusion.
You may have heard of “Suffrage at Seventeen,” and chances are you have bad information on it. It’s led to misconceptions across the state of Wisconsin, and that’s why one local 17-year-old erroneously voted on April 5.
Coined a catchy name, suffrage at seventeen laws permit 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections that lead up to a general election in which they will be 18 and legal to vote. According to an online source, 22 states currently have this law. And according to some sources, Wisconsin is one of them.
Sometime earlier this year, a friend and I were talking about this law, which led me to do the above research. Some sources listed Wisconsin as a state that participates in suffrage at seventeen, and others did not. I was unable to find any information on a government website about it.
As we neared the Wisconsin presidential primaries on April 5, I heard more and more comments from students encouraging eligible 17-year-olds to vote, and also saw some Facebook posts doing the same. Confused as to whether or not this actually existed here in Wisconsin, I went to the Washington County Clerk’s office for a more definitive answer. When I walked into the office, four friendly employees looked up from their desks and greeted me. I posed to them my question, and was met with four puzzled expressions.
I explained to them that I couldn’t find coherent information on it, and they talked back and forth for a minute while trying to look up the answer. They hadn’t heard of it before and eventually decided that since they were never notified of anything, that Wisconsin must not have it. Which is fair enough.
I went home with slightly more solidified information in hand, and now a cause in my mind. That evening, I wrote letters to my state representative, senator, and the governor. Again, I explained the confusion that led up to this, and urged them to take on a role supporting such legislation. I received only one personalized letter in return, from Rep. Brooks. He reaffirmed that Wisconsin did not have this, and also explained that he was not ready to support it, either.
I thought I had my final answer. The primaries were just a few days away, and I continued to hear an occasional remark about voting at 17. Sometimes I would join the conversation relaying everything I knew about it, but overall, everyone seemed to have a different idea about it.
Confused as to whether or not suffrage at seventeen actually existed here in Wisconsin, I went to the Washington County Clerk’s office for a more definitive answer.
Election Day rolled around, and I figured I might as well go to my polling place and just see what would happen if I tried to register. After all, since there was so much confusion, it might be possible that I really could vote. When I told the poll workers that I was 17 and uncertain whether or not I could vote, they too looked confused at first. They were about to hand off the question to a worker who would know more, but quickly reaffirmed themselves that Wisconsin did not allow 17-year-olds to vote, vaguely pointing at something on the registration paperwork.
Done. Final answer. You cannot vote at 17 in Wisconsin. Period.
Well… you shouldn’t be able to.
Shortly after I got home following my voting attempt, I saw yet another Facebook post encouraging eligible 17-year-olds to vote. I quickly commented, explaining that I had just been turned away and that I had done all the research. I wanted to prevent anyone else from being steered by the wrong information. Another 17-year-old student was also quick to correct, but she told me that I was wrong. She had just voted.
At this point, I was even more confused and frustrated. I asked her a few questions about her situation, then immediately called my polling place. Did they wrongfully turn me away from exercising my right? Or did my classmate somehow vote when she shouldn’t have been able to? After explaining the whole predicament for what seemed like the thousandth time, the woman on the other end told me she was going to call the Government Accountability Board. She was also frustrated by all of it.
She called me back just a minute later, and was straight to the point. Seventeen-year-olds cannot vote in the State of Wisconsin under any circumstances. She said it was “completely illegal” that the other girl voted, and that it must have slid by due to the negligence of the poll workers.
So I really have my answer now. But all the other people along the way might still believe otherwise. From students, to those encouraging the youth to vote, to even the people running elections. For something that should be so straightforward, there is too much haze around it. I’m writing this in hopes that this episode isn’t repeated, and because everyone else confused by the matter deserves the correct information.
But I didn’t go through this process just to tell the story. I’m also writing because I believe Wisconsin should approve a suffrage at seventeen law.
My representatives may think differently, but almost half of the states in the Union agree with me. It makes perfect sense for all voters in a general election to also have a say in which candidates make it to that election. It’s also been shown that when people start voting at a younger age, they are more likely to continue. We should be encouraging the youth to participate in democracy as the United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developed countries.
At 17, many people have jobs, pay taxes, contribute to the economy, fear for their education and future, keep up on current events, and most importantly, have developed their own independent morals and convictions. I am not going to pretend this is some unalienable right Wisconsinites are being deprived of. It’s important to remember how far we’ve come. It was only in 1971 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. But we also need to continue moving forward.
I urge everyone who feels the same to also write to their elected officials in support of this legislation, and spread the word. My 17-year-old voice may not count in the ballot totals, but I would like it to be heard by those who govern this state. The privilege to vote in primaries at the age of 17 can only do good, and should be embraced in Wisconsin.
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