For the first time in Illinois, 17-year-olds will be able to vote in Tuesday's March 18 Primary Election.
According to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, 3,444 Chicagoans who will be 17 years old at the time of the Primary Election and will be 18 by the General Election have registered to vote.
Adlai E. Stevenson High School teacher Andrew Conneen, along with fellow teacher Dan Larsen, spearheaded the effort to get the law passed last summer.
While Conneen said he didn’t have a set expectation for the number of registered 17-year-olds, he called the nearly 3,500 registered Chicagoans a “good start.”
“We always knew, even though it took 10 years to pass [the] legislation, the heavy lifting would be to get the word out to the schools to register,” Conneen said. “We worked with the Lake County Clerk’s Office to train a dozen students to be voter registrars, and [they] registered close to 400 Stevenson students to vote for this election.”
In addition to working with the Lake County Clerk’s Office, Conneen said he worked with various groups, including Mikva Challenge, to hold a series of forums, debates and campaigns in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties.
“We have always encouraged students, even if they weren’t eligible to vote, to participate in campaigns. It gives extra emphasis to the power they have,” Conneen said. “We wanted to introduce our students who are civically engaged to that opportunity. [We] wanted to get students involved beyond the power to vote now.”
Lisbeth Leanos, who is a member of the Mikva Challenge Board of Directors and testified on behalf of the bill in the House Executive Committee, said she was more focused on building awareness than a specific number of registered voters.
“I wanted to get more young adults involved in the political process,” Leanos said. “I think the number is great. If it was higher, that would also be good...Most importantly, it’s refreshing to see that new voters are engaged in or attempted to be engaged in the whole political process. I think, if anything, especially during primary season when you have low voter turnout, when you see a number like that, that makes me feel more excited about the future of elections with new voters, especially 17-year-olds playing a key role in political campaigns and politics.”
Both Leanos and Conneen hope allowing 17-year-olds to vote will set the stage for lifelong political engagement.
“We want it to become a habit,” Leanos said. “At 17, once they see or don’t see the results, knowing they cast a vote for someone they believed in, that could have held a leadership role means a lot.”