CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Allowing some 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections would violate the state Constitution, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The Senate passed a bill in February allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries as long as they turn 18 before the next general election. The House delayed action on the bill and asked the court whether the legislation would violate two sections of the Constitution, one that specifies that “every inhabitant of the state 18 years of age and upwards shall have an equal right to vote in any election,” and another that prohibits the state from imposing unfunded mandates on communities.

The court said yes to the first question and no to the second.

The court noted that the Constitution, written in 1784, originally provided that men 21 and older who paid their poll tax could vote for state senators. It was changed through the years and in 1976, was amended to reflect the current age and language.

The court said the meaning of the amendment as it was passed means “that only those who are 18 years of age and older are eligible to vote in an election; those under the age of 18 are ineligible.”

The court also found that the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to set a minimum age for voting lower than 18, and that the language of the Constitution applies to all elections, including primaries.

Sen. Joe Foster, D-Nashua, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he was disappointed, but respected the court’s decision.

“They found that the legislative history means that 18’s the minimum age, not the required age,” said Foster, whose teenage daughter, Mikayla, testified for the bill’s passage at a hearing in January. She had said 17-year-olds would be more interested and more informed about candidates when they vote in the general election if they are allowed to vote in the primary.

“I think that may be some who will in the future seek to amend the Constitution, because it seems that’s what we would have to do,” Foster said.

Foster introduced the bill, SB436, at the request of the Legislative Youth Advisory Council, a 19-member group made up of young people ages 15-22. Foster’s daughter serves on the council.

At least nine other states have similar laws. They are: Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

In Vermont, the Legislature this year approved amending the state Constitution to make the change, but the measure will have to go another legislative round and then to a statewide referendum before it can be enacted. The earliest it could go into effect would be 2010.

Eighteen is the voting age enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but primaries are functions of the states and of political parties.

AP-ES-05-19-08 1603EDT

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