When state Rep. Rich Grucela proposed to allow 17-year-olds to vote in spring primaries if they'll turn 18 by the fall's general election, he wasn't thinking about the effect his measure would have on Pittsburgh.
"The entire thought behind this was to get kids involved in the electoral process," says Grucela, a Democrat from Northampton, about 70 miles from Philadelphia. "Young people have the worst voting records," adds Grucela, who taught high school civics for 30 years, "and this is an opportunity to get them participating in the process while they're still in school, and learning about the process."
In Pittsburgh, for one, they would learn that once they've voted in most Democratic primaries, the general election is a foregone conclusion.
"It's tough to get young people excited about voting in the general election, when they had no input in deciding who would be on the ballot," says Grucela, who understands the impact of primaries in Pittsburgh and elsewhere but says his bill is nonpartisan. "We are gearing up for a very active primary season with a lot of important races. A lot of interest has been generated in the electoral process by the [legislators'] pay raise and other issues, and I think it's a great time to get students interested in the process."
Grucela's amendment, which was attached to an unrelated bill, must now pass the Senate.
Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, says lowering the voting age to 16 or 17 has been the major fight of his organization since its inception in 1998. He says bills like Grucela's help further his group's cause and bring attention to the younger generation's ability and willingness to vote.
In Maryland, Koroknay-Palicz says, a law similar to the Pennsylvania measure has seen quite a bit of success. In the first election under the new law -- a primary 12 months before the general election -- both 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote. Voter turnout among those groups, he says, was 35 percent, roughly the same as turnout for adults 18 and older.
"In a lot of cases, the argument is that young voters are too immature to vote and take their responsibility serious," Koroknay-Palicz says. "But in the first year, the voter turnout of that age group was ... pretty impressive."