OVERLAND PARK, KANSAS —
On Tuesday afternoon, Kansas gubernatorial candidate Tyler Ruzich accompanied his running mate Dominic Scavuzzo to the polling station to cast his ballot.
But Ruzich didn’t vote because, at 17 years of age, he’s too young.
“You don’t have to vote to be a voter,” Ruzich told some of his friends, also under the legal voting age, at his election watch party Tuesday night.
“Being here means you’re a voter – that you’re encouraging your friends and family to make an educated choice, and that you’re standing by someone you support.”
Ruzich was one of three gubernatorial candidates in Kansas unable to vote for themselves in this primary election because they were not yet 18-years-old – the age requirement to vote in the United States.
The three candidates are among six Kansas teenagers who had declared their candidacy for governor after discovering last year that the state constitution did not have a minimum age requirement to run for office. None of the three won their parties’ nomination in the primary elections on Tuesday night.
The Kansas legislature has since passed a law requiring candidates to be at least 18 years of age. But this unique opportunity allowed these teenagers to experience running for office early in their careers, and drew their attention to issues in their state such as voter registration.
Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging the political activism of America’s youth, has deemed Kansas a “blocker” state, indicating many barriers to voter registration. Kansas does not allow automatic voter registration or same-day registration. Kansas residents must register to vote 21 days before the election they wish to vote in. The state also does not allow those who will be 18 years old by the time of the general election to vote in the primaries – as is the case with Ruzich.
Though they don’t have hard numbers on it yet, all three candidates feel that in spite of the difficulties Kansans face while registering to vote, they have inspired more young people to go to the polls.
“I have a lot of friends that were actually more intrigued with voting, they all went out with their parents to vote, Scavuzzo told VOA.
“I still have had some young people tell me that they weren’t necessarily going to vote in this election, but now they are going to vote,” Bergeson said.
“So I have some anecdotal evidence that says, ok it’s worked, there is more enthusiasm than there would have been.”
And Joseph Tutera, the second 17-year-old who bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, believes this primary election had record-high numbers of voter turnout.
“We’re actually having something like the highest voter turnout in 14 years for the primary and I’d like to think that’s because of me,” he said.
And though none of the three won nominations from the Republican or Democratic parties, they all say they have achieved other goals – both personal and for their state.
“I was able to stand on a stage and debate a lot of the big names in the state and I was really able to show that there is a difference between the establishment and uncorrupted candidates,” Jack Bergeson, who conceded the Democratic gubernatorial primary on Tuesday night, told VOA.
“I’ve brought a policy-focused liberal campaign. And people have really responded to it. And I’m really glad I gave people this choice,” he said, adding that, despite his lost, “those things have made it all worth it.”
Tutera, though on the other side of the political spectrum as a more conservative Republican, said he felt the same way about giving young voters a choice and encouraging them to explore the party, which he says is typically less popular among young voters.
“My goal was to encourage young people to find haven in the Republican party. I’m trying to show younger people ‘I’m here, I can agree with what they’re doing, I can find haven in the party and I think you can too.”
Ultimately, though some Kansas voters admired the enthusiasm of the young candidates, they felt the job of governor required someone with more experience.
“I’m not sure these young people have the experience that it takes to hold office like that,” Pamela de la Fuente, a young mother of two, told VOA. “I think a lot of issues – like taxes – are they even paying taxes yet?”
“Not saying that they wouldn’t be adequate,” Kellen Cox, a Mission Hills, Kansas resident, told VOA. “But other candidates that have years of wisdom and experience would probably be a safer vote in my opinion.”