In Ohio, 17-year-olds can vote now. Will this help Sanders?

A judge's order now allows 16,000 17-year-olds to vote in Ohio's primary election. Is that enough to make a difference for Bernie Sanders?

Tony Dejak/AP
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., shakes hands with supporters after speaking at a campaign rally at the SeaGate Convention Centre, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Toledo, Ohio.

A court has cleared the way for 17-year-olds to vote in the Ohio presidential primary, although unless the race is very close, their impact on a volatile primary election may be negligible.  

A judge ruled that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) had incorrectly interpreted a law when he barred 17-year-olds who turn 18 before the General Election from the state primary, the Associated Press reported. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who had also filed a lawsuit on the subject, praised the move as "a huge victory for 17-year-olds across Ohio."

Mr. Husted decried the decision as "last-minute legislating from the bench on election law" but decided not to appeal because of time constraints. 

Laws in 17 states allow 17-year-olds to vote before their 18th birthday, according to USA.gov. Since 1981, this list has included Ohio, which is why the judge ruled in favor of the 17-year-old plaintiffs. 

"I think it's my right to be able to vote," plaintiff Brian Bush told the AP. "Obviously, local and state elections are just as important. But for something as big as the president, I feel like I should be able to voice my opinion in it."

Certain political parties also allow 17-year-olds to vote in a primary in an additional six states, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group based in Maryland. The group has noted that "Ohio law seems to clearly allow 17-year-olds to vote in any primary election," and has advocated that all states empower 17-year-olds whose birthdays fall between the primary and general election to vote. [Editor's note: An earlier version mischaracterized FairVote's political leanings.

On a practical level, the 17-year-olds of Ohio may not impact Mr. Sanders' campaign, even if the 16,000 who registered vote for him on March 15. Ohio's voting-age population is 8,955,859, and 55 percent are over age 45, according to the US Census.

The latest polls show Hillary Clinton leading Sanders by about 15 percentage points in Ohio, but the gap is closing. In Michigan, the polls showed Clinton leading by a large margin, but she lost. If the race is close in Ohio, every voter will count. 

But the challenge that Sanders' has faced from the beginning is that young people tend to vote at lower rates than their elders; a Pew research study noted only 19 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election were under 29. That same age group thought they voted, but actually have no record of it, more than twice as often as those from other age groups during the 2014 election. 

Despite Tuesday's significant win in the March 8 Michigan primary, Sanders' delegate deficit mean he needs 60 percent of the remaining delegates to secure a nomination in the Democratic convention, wrote The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier. Given the delegate makeup of the remaining states, this won't be easy, and his reliance on young voters has already limited his campaign's success because the under-30 crowd's excitement has not translated into an unusually large voting turn-out:

It is risky to depend on young voters. They don’t vote in the percentages that their elders do. Maybe they have more to do; maybe their schedules are more unpredictable; maybe they’re just feckless (kidding!).

Sanders destroys Mrs. Clinton among younger voters, winning upwards of 80 percent of their votes, or more. But voters under age 30 underperformed in [Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada], in the sense that they made up a smaller share of those who turned up at the polls than they comprise of the state’s population.

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