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posted: 5/30/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: A chance to nurture political voices of teens

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Life handed Charlie Kirk a lemon in the form of a rejection letter to the Military Academy at West Point, abruptly ending his long-held dream. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he dived into the realm of politics, and, a year later, the 19-year-old Wheeling resident already has appeared as an analyst on Fox News and has introduced a key speaker at a national political conference.

Just seven years Kirk's senior, Matt Bogusz was seated as mayor of Des Plaines this month, the area's youngest such leader. His political ascent grew from leadership positions in school and the local Scouting council, an internship with state Rep. Elaine Nekritz and then, at 22, election as alderman.

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The intense civic-mindedness of these two standouts, while not typical among their peers, nevertheless reminds us there are young people who want to make a difference. And for teens who have not yet thought much about things political, they soon could get an extra push to do so.

Legislation on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk would lower the voting age to 17 for those who will turn 18 between spring primary elections and fall general elections. The bill, proposed by Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills, was approved with little controversy, passing 43-9 in the Senate and 95-22 in the House. Supporters said the earlier age will engage 17-year-olds in the process and jump-start lifelong voting habits.

We agree, and we will welcome the governor's signature, which seems likely since he already has stated he supports the bill.

Five years ago, young people were energized by the rock-star candidacy of Barack Obama, which helped spur 52 percent of voters under age 30 to cast ballots nationwide -- the second-highest percentage in history. (The highest was 55 percent in 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds could vote for president.) By the November 2012 election, much of the excitement had diminished, and the number dropped to 49 percent. It's likely a revitalized interest in political issues among teens isn't going to happen on its own but will require some nurturing.

Kirk, who was profiled recently in the Daily Herald, is doing his part. He delayed starting college in Texas for a year so he could focus on his website, Turning Point USA, which aims to engage his generation in politics.

Other adults have a role as well, including teachers who can use classroom time to discuss issues that matter to youths like immigration policies and student loans. On Election Day, schools should accommodate any students who are old enough and have a desire to vote. Parents can lead discussions at home, help with registration and set the example by going to the polls themselves. The more young people feel included, the more likely they will grow to become active citizens.

Not every young person will have the opportunity to share opinions on network news or will aspire to be a mayor. But each has a voice in the community and, if the governor follows through on this change, more of them will have a way to use it.

Pullout:

An earlier voting age will engage 17-year-olds in the process and jump-start lifelong voting habits.

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