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January 05, 2024

New Jersey will allow some 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections

A new law, which takes effect in 2026, says minors can participate in primaries so long as they turn 18 by the general election

Politics Elections
New Jersey Primaries Elements Digital/Unsplash

New Jersey is one of 20 states to pass legislation allowing 17-year-olds to participate in primary elections. The new law will take effect in 2026.

Beginning in 2026, New Jersey will allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections as long as they turn 18 by the time of the general election.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill Thursday that makes New Jersey one of 20 states with similar laws for 17-year-olds. The state already allows 17-year-olds to register to vote if they will turn 18 by the general election.

"To strengthen our democracy, we must ensure that all eligible voters can participate in it," Murphy said. "Across government, we see how the decisions we make today impact future generations."

Originally introduced by Democrats in 2020, the bill passed the state legislature in December mostly along party lines. In 1972, Delaware and Maryland became the first states to pass similar laws. Pennsylvania does not let 17-year-olds vote in primaries.

Supporters of the law touted it as an effective way to get young people involved in the political process, giving them a direct hand in who ends up on the ballot. In New Jersey, primaries are held by the Democratic and Republican parties only. Both primaries are closed and require voters to be affiliated with one of the parties in order to vote. 

"There's a lot of voter education that needs to be had in the next 18 to 24 months," said Winn Khuong, executive director of Action Together New Jersey, which promotes voter registration and voting by mail. 

Khuong said she's disappointed the law doesn't take effect until 2026. New Jersey has a key race taking shape for the seat of indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, with Democrats Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy — New Jersey's first lady — both vying for the party's nomination.

"I would encourage both parties to do outreach to youth voters," Khuong said. "The sooner you engage with them, I think it increases their chances of taking ownership (and) being engaged. I'm a big proponent of helping them to develop a habit of voting."

Since New Jersey began allowing 17-year-olds to register to vote in 2015 — aided by automatic voter registration through the Motor Vehicle Commission — there has still been a need for more outreach to those who don't have state identification, according to Khuong.

"Automatic voter registration has been really helpful to enroll 17-year-olds, but there is a gap of 17-year-olds who we miss when we don't have driver's licenses," Khuong said.

Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said the new law will make elections more inclusive. 

"Being able to have young people have a say in (elections) is incredibly important as we think about the future of (the Democratic and Republican) parties in our country," Burns said. 

Khuong said she and other supporters of the new law have been criticized by skeptics, many of them Republicans, who claim young people aren't sufficiently informed about politics. She pointed out that many of the states that already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries are traditionally red states — including Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio.

"Are you saying you don't want young Republicans to vote in your primary? Why are you fearing youth voters?" Khuong said. "I hope in the next two years that we overcome this mindset." 

State Sen. James Beach, a Democrat whose 6th District covers parts of Burlington and Camden counties, said many teenagers already are motivated to be part of the state's primaries.

"Many teens look forward to voting in their first election, and now, if they are turning 18 between June and November, they will get a say in who’s on the ballot," Beach said.

PhillyVoice staff writer Michaela Althouse contributed reporting to this story.