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The Beauty is an Election Geek: Miss Vermont Helps Give 17-Year-Olds the Right to Vote

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[Image courtesy of missvermont]

NOTE: I often say that the job of elections is so varied that you end up encountering all different kinds of people - I'm absolutely delighted to add "beauty queen" to that list! This story by my colleague M. Mindy Moretti appeared in the March 15, 2012 electionlineWeekly.

When Katie Levasseur was a senior in high school she did what a lot of civic-minded young people do in this country. She interned in the Vermont Statehouse.

However, what sets Levasseur and two of her fellow interns apart from most other interns and pages is that they made a lasting difference on the lives of young people in the state of Vermont.

While interning in the Statehouse in 2008 as part of the Girls Rock the Capitol internship program, Levasseur was frustrated that she couldn't vote in the 2008 election year so she set out to do something about it.

It seems only fitting that as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts (the organization that supports the internship program) that it took a little girl power to give 17-year-olds in the state of Vermont the right to vote in the primary if they will be 18 on or before the general election.

"As a seventeen year-old learning about election laws, I quickly found out that I was unable to vote in the upcoming presidential primary election," Levasseur said. "Two other interns and I put our heads together and came up with the idea to change Vermont's election laws."

Levasseur said that she's always been interested in elections on some level, recalling going into the voting booth with her mother when she was a young child, taking an Advanced Placement government class in high school and of course the internship program.

Today, Levasseur is completing her reign as the 2011 Miss Vermont and getting ready to finish her Bachelor's degree at the University of Vermont.

But before she got to that point and before 17-year olds got to vote in Vermont, a lot of work had to be done.

Levasseur, Ellie Beckett and Courtney Mattison took their idea to their Statehouse mentor and then began a long process of testifying and repeatedly lobbying senators and representatives on behalf of Proposition 5.

In Vermont, in order for an amendment to be successful it must be approved by the House and Senate in consecutive biennium and then be approved as a ballot measure.

"To me, not having the right to vote in the presidential primary election to show my support for my candidate was extraordinarily disappointing," Levasseur said. "I was frustrated with the election laws and thought we could do a better job supporting positive voting habits in our youth. Turns out, a little bit of teenage frustration can turn into a very positive result with a little bit of hard work, and the support and encouragement of those around you!"

Despite opposition from some clerks who were concerned that the amendment wasn't more clearly defined, 80 percent of the state's voters supported the constitutional amendment in 2010.

In December of that year outgoing Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz honored Levasseur and the other interns with Enduring Democracy Awards for their work on the constitutional amendment.

Levasseur was also able to help promote the new law through her duties as Miss Vermont.

"Most of my speaking engagements center around my platform, which gives me ample opportunity to speak about voting and civic service," Levasseur said. "It's been a phenomenal year for me to be Miss Vermont, as I've had countless opportunities to speak to community groups such as rotaries, schools, Girl Scout troops, and many others. What better year to have an opportunity to promote this than the first year the amendment is in effect?"

Last week, the first group of 17-year olds got to cast their ballot in Vermont's Super Tuesday contest.

"We will not have any hard data, but anecdotally based on emails and news reports, it appears that a fair number of high schools conducted voter registration drives so that a good number of 17 year olds voted," said Kathleen Scheele, director of elections and campaign finance in the Vermont secretary of state's office.

Scheele said the secretary of state's office has a part-time employee that focused on outreach with high school teachers and Secretary Jim Condos issued a series of press releases and did media interviews to spread the word.

As for Levasseur, after she cast her first presidential primary ballot on Tuesday, she stuck around to chat with other first-time voters.

"Most of the young voters I was able to speak with were so excited for the opportunity to vote a little earlier. Many had learned about the opportunity fairly recently and had been planning to cast their vote in November anyway," Levasseur said. "The opportunity to vote in their party's primary election sent them a message of positive support from their elected officials. They all plan to continue voting in the future."

Levasseur will finish up her Bachelor's degree at the University of Vermont after she completes her year as Miss Vermont. Then it's on to graduate school, then work, and maybe, possibly, a future Vermont secretary of state?

"I intend to pursue a master's degree in public policy or political administration. I'd like to work as a public policy analyst either for an organization or individual. As far as my political career...I'm keeping my options open," Levasseur said with a smile.

Can't wait to see what's next - ed.

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