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Bills allowing certain 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections advances

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(The Center Square) – Companion bills allowing certain 17-year-olds to vote in the primary election are headed to the governor’s desk.

The General Assembly ratified Senate Bill 35A and House Bill 5055A late Monday, permitting individuals who are 17 years old to vote in a primary election provided they are registered to vote and will be age 18 by the day of the general election.

Gov. Dan McKee can now either sign or veto the bills.

Rep. Jennifer Boylan, D-Barrington, said many “young people in our communities” are engaged in politics and are “paying attention.”

“If they’ll be voting in the general election, they should have a say in who appears on the ballot,” Boylan said in a statement. “Participation among our youngest voters has historically been low, and this bill could help encourage them to get engaged and stay engaged in our democracy.”

Senate Bill 35A and House Bill 5055A state that a person who is age 17 and will be 18 by the general election and is registered to vote can do so as long as election laws pertaining to residing in the state 30 days before the election date.

Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore said the bill would impact 1,200 Rhode Island residents yearly. Similar laws are on the books in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and 15 other states.

John Marion, who serves as executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said his organization was pleased to see voting rights extended to the state’s youth turning 18 before the general election.

“Once the Rhode Island Senate passes H5055 Sub A, as expected, we urge Gov. McKee to sign it, along with S35 Sub A that has already passed both chambers,” Marion said in a statement to The Center Square. “The youngest voters historically turn out at the lowest rate, and encouraging participation early will hopefully inspire a life-long habit of voting.

“If signed into law, Rhode Island will join the 18 states that already allow this practice. Given the high rate of uncontested general elections in Rhode Island, this bill will allow young people to participate in the election that often determines who will represent them. Since Rhode Island already allows for pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, this will work well with existing policy.”

According to a release, legislation was initially introduced by Sen. Valarie Lawson, D-East Providence, and Amore, who was then serving in the House of Representatives. Both lawmakers are former teachers.

“When we give young people more opportunities to engage directly in the electoral process, we set them up for a lifetime of civic engagement,” Amore said in a statement.

Lawson said that being a high school civics teacher in East Providence allowed her to engage with young people.

“We know that once someone votes once, they’re likely to keep participating in our democracy every election,” Lawson said in a statement. “This bill will motivate young individuals to exercise their right to vote, which is something we should all encourage.”

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