Student Lobbyists Awaiting Voters' Verdict on Suffrage

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A group of students at Central High School in Omaha, Neb., will be taking an unusually keen interest in the outcome of next week's general election--and not necessarily because it is one in which they will be casting their first votes for President.

What has captured their imagination is a relatively minor proposed change in the state constitution.

And if Amendment 3B passes, as appears likely, the Central High students will be able to claim a victory.

The amendment would give 17-year-olds the right to vote in primaries and state and local elections if they are to turn 18 before the general election in November. And the students were the behind-the-scenes authors and lobbyists for a bill placing it on the ballot.

Since the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote, 10 states and the District of Columbia have acted to extend voting rights in primaries and local elections to 17-year-olds.

But last year, according to Dean J. Neff, a social-studies teacher at Central, several juniors and seniors there were distressed to learn that Nebraska was not one of the 10.

They had read in an American-government textbook, he said, about students at a school in California who had tried, but failed, to get a similar proposal included on their state's ballot. And, that precedent notwithstanding, the Central students decided to act on their convictions.

After researching the amending process, they sent their proposed change--and the reasons for it--to senators in the state's unicameral legislature. Then they began a lobbying effort that culminated in the passage by a 43-to-3 vote last April of a bill putting the question to voters.

Nebraskans will be joined by voters in Hawaii and Illinois in deciding questions of teenage suffrage.

In Illinois, the amendment on the ballot would formalize 18-year-olds' right to vote. It is designed to bring the state constitution in line with the U.S. Constitution, and it has no effect on 17-year-olds.

But Hawaii's proposed amendment is similar to Nebraska's, allowing those who will reach the age of 18 by Dec. 31 to vote in elections held during that year. It was the brainchild of Lieu. Gov. Benjamin Kayetano.

"There was no groundswell of student activity here," said Dwayne Yoshina, a spokesman for Mr. Kayetano. "He believed it was only rational."

In Nebraska, State Senator Carol M. Pirsch of Omaha, a Central High alumna, said that the students convinced some hesitant lawmakers in testimony before the committee on government and military affairs.

"They made the point that the voting process begins in the primaries," she said. "I wish I could get their help on some other things."

The students also were persistent outside of committee, according to their teacher, Mr. Neff. "They really saw a good example of how a bill is passed," he said. "They found out that a lot of things go on in the background, that you have to do behind-the-scenes lobbying."

Those who worked on the amendment are now using gentle persuasion to get their classmates to the voting booths, Mr. Neff said. But that effort is purely extracurricular.

They received no grade or extra credit, he added, for their legislative heroics--only an appreciation of the intricacies of government.--kg

Vol. 08, Issue 09

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