A New Jersey high school senior can volunteer for a political campaign and display their support for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders on their social media profiles.
But the most they can do about this year's hotly-contest primaries, including a Democratic contest that could be decided in New Jersey, is count down the days until their 18th birthday.
The "New Voter Empowerment Act," passed by the Assembly last week, would allow 17-year-old New Jerseyans to vote in primary elections as long as their birthday falls before the general election date. A Senate vote is still pending.
If enacted, New Jersey would become the 22nd state to allow the practice, including Delaware, Maryland and Connecticut. In New Jersey, people can already register to vote when they’re 17 years old.
“All it says is, look at the primary and general elections as a unit,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Somerset, the bill's primary sponsor. “Once someone of any age becomes a voter, they tend to stay a voter. This is inspired by the literally thousands of kids from all parts of the political spectrum who want to be involved.
"Once they start, they don’t stop,” he said.
An identical bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. James Beach, D-Camden, is awaiting a committee hearing.
Zwicker, 52, estimates that the bill would give about 23,000 17-year-olds the ability to vote in the primaries each year. And if they vote in the primaries, the hope is that they’ll keep it up in future elections.
Andrew Zwicker (district 16) is sworn in by speaker Vincent Prieto (Photo: Bob Bielk/Gannett NJ, Bob Bielk/Asbury Park Press)
The first-term assemblyman takes the mantra of “every vote matters” to heart: Last year, he upset four-year Assemblywoman Donna Simon, R-Hunterdon, by just 78 votes in the general election. And he did it with a campaign team where the oldest staffer was 27 years old.
“These people believe that we can still go ahead, have a grassroots campaign and get behind someone you believe in, whether it’s me or anybody else,” Zwicker said. “This felt like a good place to start.”
The bill cleared the Assembly last week by a 57 to 17 vote, mostly along party lines: No Democrat voted against it, and only eight Republicans voted in favor.
"We do need to have greater accessibility and convenience for all voting, just to ensure that the integrity of the process is maintained," said Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, R-Ocean, who voted for the bill.
When the issue has been raised in other states, opponents generally agree that it would encourage voter turnout -- but those it directly affects generally vote for Democrats or liberal candidates.
The issue came to a head in Ohio in March, when Sanders sued the secretary of state to allow 17-year-olds to vote. A judge ruled in Sanders's favor.
Zwicker said the goal of the bill is simply to get young people to the polls, regardless of their affiliation.
“Some people will say young people tend to vote Democratic, and isn’t that partisan,” Zwicker said. “I just want everyone out there … I don’t care if someone wants to be a Democrat, a Republican or unaffiliated. I want the young people out there and voting.”