It's curious to think that this state — which has such a long and colorful tradition of disenfranchising its citizens — is actually one of the most progressive in allowing young people to vote. South Carolina is one of eight states which will allow 17-year-olds to cast a ballot in primaries if they turn 18 on or before next year's general election.
To put that more clearly, if you turn 17 on or before Nov. 4, you may vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries in January and in the local primary races in June. And of course, you are eligible to vote in the Nov. 4, 2008, general election.
Like all voters in S.C., 17-year-olds must be United States citizens and not felons on probation. If you pass those criteria, there's nothing in the law stopping you from stepping into the voting booth in two months.
What will stop many young South Carolinians from voting is the same thing that keeps their parents and grandparents from voting — the oppressive weight of history and tradition. In a state where history and tradition have spawned a tourism industry and a real estate boom, they have been a monumental impediment to the democratic process.
Historically and traditionally, black people were not allowed to vote in this state, nor were women, nor were more than half of all adult (i.e., age 21) white men. It took a Civil War, a couple of constitutional amendments, a federal Voting Rights Act, and numerous federal court decisions to extend the franchise to almost every man and woman in S.C. But the powers that be fought these changes every step of the way, and they are still fighting. Every time you read that some legislator wants a law requiring a photo ID to vote, you may rest assured that it is simply the latest attempt to bar poor people and black people from the polls.
Of course, tradition affects the meek and the mighty alike. In so much as the dominant class in S.C. has moved heaven and earth to preserve their power and privilege, black people and poor people have learned to be subservient and submissive.
Yes, the laws have changed in recent generations, but attitudes have not caught up. Many South Carolinians — indeed, many Southerners — do not vote because they have no tradition of voting, no habit of voting. They don't know anyone who votes. No one in the history of their family has ever voted.
History and tradition. They hang on South Carolina's neck like a millstone.
Now the League of Women Voters of South Carolina is trying to break tradition with a statewide campaign to get young people registered to vote and start them on a lifelong tradition of stepping into a voting booth at every opportunity.
"Voting is a habit, and we want to instill that habit as early as possible," said Joan Dehne, co-chairperson for voter services for Charleston Area LWV.
Dehne cannot speak for the rest of the state, where the League is organizing voter registration efforts into local high schools on a district-by-district basis, but of the 18 public high schools in Charleston County, she is aware of only Wando High trying to register new voters. Efforts are also being made in the three largest private high schools: Porter Gaud, Ashley Hall, and Bishop England.
I would like to ask state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex why this voter registration initiative is being left to the League of Women Voters. It looks like that would be the responsibility of the Department of Education, possibly in conjunction with the S.C. Election Commission. It would certainly be a good hands-on civics lesson in an environment where it seems almost impossible to get teens' minds off iPods, PlayStations, and sex.
Indeed, it almost inspires paranoia to think that the law allowing young people to vote in primaries before they reach technical voting age has been on the books for half a century, yet almost no one knows it. I have spent most of my life in this state, and I was not aware of it until a few weeks ago. But now you know: Voting is legal for 17-year-olds, and, along with getting a drivers license, it is a way for young people to assert themselves and take on adult responsibility.
Seventeen-year-olds who want to vote in the Jan. 19 Republican presidential primary must register by Dec. 19; those wishing to vote in the Jan. 29 Democratic primary must register by Dec. 29.
No voter registration facilities in your high school? Don't let that stop you. Sit down at your nearest computer, go online to www.lwvsc.org or to the state Election Commission at www.scvotes.org. Print out the voter registration form, fill it out, and mail it in.
It's not too late. Be an adult. Vote.