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updated: 3/16/2014 6:10 AM

17-year-olds eager to vote Tuesday

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  • Jennie Matz, 17, sits in her government class at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. If they'll be 18 by Nov. 4, 17-year-olds will be able to vote in the primary election. It's the first time people under 18 have been eligible to vote in Illinois.

       Jennie Matz, 17, sits in her government class at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. If they'll be 18 by Nov. 4, 17-year-olds will be able to vote in the primary election. It's the first time people under 18 have been eligible to vote in Illinois.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

By Joe Salvato

While many people will skip going to the polls on Tuesday, 17-year-olds like Jennie Matz will be thrilled to show up.

"I'm going with my mom so I actually know what to do but I'm excited to vote," said Matz, a senior at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

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Matz is just one of many new voters this year who can participate in the voting process because of the Suffrage at 17 law.

The law specifies that any 17-year-old in Illinois can vote in the primary election as long as his or her 18th birthday is before Nov. 4, the general election date. The idea is for voters to have a choice of who's on the ballot in the general election later in the year.

In suburban Cook County alone, 3,423 17-year-olds registered under the new law, according to the Cook County clerk's office.

"My parents always stressed to me that it's important to vote," said Rolling Meadows High School senior Mike D'Acquisto, who plans to cast his first ballot Tuesday.

Just 25.5 percent of registered voters turned out for the 2010 Illinois primary, according to the Cook County clerk's office. Similarly, some 17-year-olds are more serious than others about voting, Matz said.

"It's a pretty big step, and I would think most 17-year-olds agree, but I think some aren't very serious about voting and they don't see the importance of voting for governor or other political figures," she said.

But Matz won't be missing the chance. She takes pride in staying up to date with political news.

"I look at a lot of news sources to see if they talk about the governor election, and at Stevenson there's going to be a talk about all the different governor candidates and how to vote, so I'll probably go to that," she said.

Stevenson High School students tend to be knowledgeable about Suffrage at 17 because government teacher Andrew Conneen and many of his students were instrumental in passing Illinois' new law.

Gov. Pat Quinn went to Stevenson to sign the legislation last July.

Because of that, faculty and students like senior Jake Ferzacca, 18, worked hard to spread the word about the change in voting law.

"For the first year the law comes out, you have to assume a lot of people don't think they can vote. A lot of 17-year-olds dismiss the elections and really don't concern themselves with it at all," Ferzacca said. "So when I approach a lot of these classrooms, kids ask, 'I'm 17, can I vote?' and I answer with, 'Yes, let's go talk about it.'"

Ferzacca is one of the leaders at Stevenson in student registration, and is a proud supporter of the law.

"If I turn 18 the day before the election, I can technically go vote in that election with no say in what two candidates are on my ballot. With this Suffrage at 17 law, I now have that say. I can vote in the primaries and get my voice heard before the general election date," he said. "I think once kids know about it, it becomes a big topic."

D'Acquisto learned about the law from his former history teacher at Rolling Meadows High School, who came to study hall to talk about it.

"It sounded like a great idea. H's a great guy, so it wasn't hard finding him to help me register," he said.

Video announcements helped spread the word to students, and teachers were asked to do the same, D'Acquisto added.

Both D'Acquisto and Matz said registration was easy. Like Matz, D'Acquisto is excited to vote and proud of what it represents.

"One vote might not seem like a lot, but it's our freedom to do so," he said. "People fought for our right to vote, so I think it's very important that people exercise that right."

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