By Erich Wagner
Teenagers may soon be able to register to vote as soon as they can get their driver’s licenses, under a proposal passed by the House Monday.
The bill would allow all 16-year-old residents to register to vote. Although they still would not be able to vote in an election until they turn 18, they would be able to sign petitions for referendums and potential candidates, a point of contention among Republicans.
Del. Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore-Harford, questioned whether the signatures of people who are not of legal voting age should have equal weight as currently registered voters. He also disputed teenagers’ ability to make informed decisions without being influenced by outside sources.
“Young people can be taken advantage of,” McDonough said. “Of course, let us encourage them to participate, but this is inappropriate.”
House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell said he was concerned at the lack of parental permission involved, as well as the lack of protections from people who would use voter information for “nefarious” purposes.
“When children don’t obtain permission, it’s diminishing parental rights,” O’Donnell said. “This will open up to a new population that is not able to vote on referendums the ability to indeed petition for referendums. This is a very bad idea.”
But Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the bill does not open the voting rolls to that many more people. He said 16- and 17-year-olds who turn 18 before the next election are already allowed to register to vote, and thereby sign petitions. He added that it is already a crime to use voter information for non-political purposes.
For those registered under 18, “their information is pending, and you need permission to access it anyway,” Cardin said. “At 16, they’re getting their driver’s licenses, and they’re ready to start making serious decisions.”
Del. Donna Stifler, R-Harford, cited her own daughter in her argument that teenagers are not of the mindset to be making political decisions.
“[My daughter] can’t decide what to wear, let alone how to decide a political party,” Stifler said. “You should see some of the groups she’s joined on Facebook…They don’t think political, they think social.”
But Del. Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s, disputed that argument.
“It discredits the youth of today, it’s really a disservice,” Walker said. “The bill just gives them the ability to say when they’re 18 they’ll be ready and able to vote.”
The bill passed by a vote of 96-44. It now heads to the Senate for consideration, although an identical bill there has not been acted on since its hearing a month ago.
Sean Sedam at the Gazette has some more details on the debate.