Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Schools continue campaign to combat voting confusion

Officials say voting law change for 17-year-olds hindered primary election sign-ups

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Confusion over voting eligibility for 17-year-olds hampered registration, Prince George’s County school officials said, but sign-up efforts will continue for the general election.

In December 2006, a Maryland law allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they turned 18 before the general election was changed by the state Board of Elections. However, just two months before the Jan. 22 registration deadline for the Feb. 12 primary, voting rights were restored for the nearly 50,000 Maryland residents who will turn 18 between the February primary and November’s general election.

School officials conducted an information blitz to get the information to students, handing out voter registration cards to high school juniors and seniors. School officials said 1,145 students registered, which they believe would have been higher if 17-year-olds’ voting status had not been in question until late last year.

‘‘When students think they won’t have an impact, they’re not going to care,” said student school board member Haywood Perry III, an Oxon Hill High School senior who helped organize the registration push last month. ‘‘But we have started to see students’ interest pique.”

After receiving training from the Prince George’s County Board of Elections, parent liaisons across the county headed registration efforts at schools, said Michael Robinson, the school system’s coordinating supervisor for community outreach.

Some high schools saw more than 100 students register during the two-day voting drive. One hundred and fifty-two students registered at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, the most of any county school; Northwestern High School in Hyattsville registered 103 students, the second most in Prince George’s.

Robinson said the recent law change caused some students to realize what they could have been denied and motivated them to register.

‘‘It had a big impact on the urgency on the part of everyone, including students themselves,” he said.

The school system will continue voter registration for the general election until October, Robinson said. The voter registration deadline for the general election is Oct. 14.

Russell Taylor, Roosevelt’s parent liaison, said many students approached his table during lunch period and tried to register, but were not eligible.

‘‘The student interest seemed to be very high,” said Taylor, who added he overheard students talk about candidates’ Web sites and their positions on prominent issues. ‘‘They were anxious to get it done.”

E-mail Dennis Carter at dcarter@gazette.net.