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Harlan Students

Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL

Miriah Jones, 17, Willie Jones, 17, and Kimberly Ellis, 17, display their primary election pride in the hallway of Harlan Community Academy in West Chesterfield. They registered to vote thanks to a new Illinois voting law allowing certain 17-year-olds the vote.

New voting law lets 4,000 17-year-olds have their say for the first time

by Natasha S. Alford
March 18, 2014

Student Paper

Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL

Students prepare to discuss GOP candidate positions at Harlan Community Academy on Chicago's South Side. This will be the first election where some 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote.

Natasha S. Alford/MEDILL

Listen in as students in Robert Pincham's law class at Harlan Community Academy debate GOP positions the day before the Illinois primary — the first in which 17-year-olds can vote for the first time.

Harlan Community Academy rocks the vote

Click here to take a closer look at Mr. Pincham's law class at Harlan Community Academy: 
Today across Chicago, city teens will skip school — with good reason. Illinois’ new “suffrage at 17 law” will allow 17-year-olds turning 18 by the Nov. 4 general election an excused absence to vote in the primary.

According to the Chicago Board of Elections, almost 9,000 teens — 4,000 of whom are 17 have registered to vote since Jan. 1 when the law took effect. While that number falls short of the board’s stated goal of 30,000 students, Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Election Board, calls the effort historic:

“We’re proud to have so many young people who can make history this election,” Neal said.

At Harlan Community Academy on Chicago’s South Side, civics teacher Robert Pincham also set out to make history. His goal was to not only get his students registered to vote, but to also get them engaged in their community. In his law class, almost all of his students are registered, and Pincham says one student registered a record 30 people on her own.

“Voting is a fundamental, not just a right, but a duty,” Pincham says. “And students that leave high school without having the experience of voting leave handicapped.”

Pincham is offering students extra credit for registering to vote and many have taken the extra step of becoming election judges. After training, election judges earn $170 to monitor polling place conduct.

Miriah Jones, 17, will vote and serve as an election judge for the first time today. She says she’s thrilled about the new law allowing younger students a vote: “We are 17 and we’re going to hit the real world, so we have to make grown people decisions.”

Jones was one of 22 seniors debating GOP candidate positions in Pincham’s class Monday. The teens were passionate as they took clear stances on abortion, gun rights, term limits, and same-sex marriage.

Many of the students’ views were decidedly conservative — an interesting note considering that Harlan Community Academy is predominantly black and low-income. Kimberly Ellis, 17, says political allegiance doesn’t matter to her in this election.

“I used to consider myself a Democrat but ... I’m thinking of issues that are going to help our revenue, educational systems,” Ellis says, “and a person that’s getting into office to have those same values that I have.”

To engage teens like Ellis, the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago (CRFC) in partnership with the Chicago Board of Elections, Mikva Challenge and CPS, created a new Common Core-aligned curriculum about voting and sponsored registration drives across the city.

Dee Runaas, high school programs director at CRFC, says students were excited and engaged throughout the campaign.

“I’ve learned kids will always rise to the level of expectation you put on them,” Runaas says,

According to FairVote, a reform advocacy group focused on increasing voter rights, Illinois joins 24 other states across the country that have opened primary voting to 17-year-olds.

While critics might argue 17-year-olds are too young to cast the ballot, Willie Jones, 17, another student in Pincham’s class, says teens have a reason to step up to the challenge.

“The issues are now impacting us at a younger age,” Jones say. “Older people believe that it doesn’t impact us until the age of accountability, but little do they realize, we are more accountable than anything.”