Despite the high-profile failures of the Illinois General Assembly (ILGA) this spring, it proved a highly-productive session for civic learning and engagement. In addition to creating a state task force on civic education and enabling online voter registration, the ILGA passed “Suffrage at 17” ( HB-226), a bill allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections that precede general elections when they will be 18.
A pair of Stevenson High School social studies teachers, Andy Conneen and Dan Larsen, and their students, led the charge. It was therefore appropriate that Governor Pat Quinn signed “Suffrage at 17” on July 3rd in a ceremony at Stevenson. He said that he came to ring the bells of democracy on the eve of Independence Day. Quinn stated, “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” and “Suffrage at 17” enhances it.
Rep. Carol Sente (D-Lincolnshire) was the House sponsor of “Suffrage at 17.” In addressing an estimated crowd of 200 which included students attending summer school and a handful of local dignitaries, Sente urged us to celebrate what is right about Illinois at a time when storm clouds linger over the deeply-indebted state with a well-deserved reputation for rampant political corruption. She said it was a privilege to stand with students in support of expanded suffrage as Illinois becomes the most populous of the 21 states with similar laws.
In a rare demonstration of bi-partisanship, Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. (R-Mundelein) was on hand and shared the stage with his Democratic counterparts. Sullivan suggested that the bill’s signing is an important milestone, but that history actually begins when students register to vote and show up at the polls next spring.
This “teachable moment” didn’t happen by accident. Conneen attributed this year’s success to three “L’s” that he emphasizes in his government classes: lobbying, leadership, and luck. In addition to Stevenson teachers and students, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC), convened by the McCormick Foundation, also supported these efforts. ICMC members called, wrote, and emailed members of the ILGA, urging them to pass “Suffrage at 17.” Teachers at other high schools in both the city and suburbs also engaged their students in these advocacy efforts.
Leadership came from the Governor, Reps. Sente and Sullivan, and on the Senate side, Sen. Terry Link (D-Gurnee), who shepherded the legislation through the upper chamber and was present at the bill signing.
Luck came in the form of a cross-country flight nine years ago when Conneen happened to be sitting next to then-Lieutenant Governor Quinn. Conneen found an interested partner in “Suffrage at 17” who had long championed populist causes, and both parties filed this conversation in their collective memories. They were reunited at Stevenson as students wrote their own history of how a bill becomes law.