By Shelley Grieshop
ST. HENRY -- Before taking the first bite of her 18th birthday cake, Jodi Uhlenhake did the most adult thing she could think of this morning -- she voted.
"I'm not too nervous," she said smiling, as she took her place in line with other Granville Township voters a little after 7 a.m.
Uhlenhake, a senior at St. Henry High School, holds the distinction of being the youngest registered voter in Mercer County. In this presidential election year with the heat on in Ohio, she's delighted to have a voice.
"I guess I was influenced to vote because there are a lot of important issues that affect people my age. For example, 18-year-olds can go fight for their country," she said, adding that several of her classmates have enlisted in the military.
Uhlenhake, the daughter of Jerry and Jan Uhlenhake, said she became as informed as possible on the candidates and issues before making her choices this morning in the American Legion hall in St. Henry. She registered to vote, along with her classmates, back in January following a suggestion and instruction by the school civics teacher. Many area schools offer students extra credit or even make it an assignment to register to vote when it's applicable for students.
The perky cross-country and track athlete faced only one hurdle this morning: after waiting in line for several minutes, she was told she needed to fill out provisional ballot documentation before actually voting. The voter registration form she filled out in January was delivered to the board of elections along with her classmates' forms -- all without photo ID's. And although she proudly held her driver's license in hand this morning, she still was designated a provisional voter.
With President Bush and John Kerry going into the home stretch neck and neck, various non-partisan groups have focused hard on the country's youngest voters who could, in reality, be a deciding factor in today's elections.
Recent campaigns such as MTV's "Choose or Lose," and rap star Sean P. Diddy's "Citizen Change" encouraged young people to get informed and vote. Musicians from country music to rock 'n' roll appeared in frequent spot commercials to urge their 18- to 30-year-old fans to do the same.
Despite the push this election season, board of election officials in both Mercer and Auglaize county reported an average influx of registered 18-year-olds. That's not unusual, they say, since area schools routinely get students to register every year.
The Grand Lake St. Marys area is known for record high voter turnout. In the last presidential election in 2000, Mercer County had a higher percentage of voters (75.2) at the polls than any other county in the state. Mercer County also hit the top 10 list of highest voter turnout across the country.
Auglaize Countians placed sixth in the state in 2000 with 70.4 percent. The state average in 2000 was 63.6 percent.
Election officials predict voter turnout this year will set records just about everywhere.
Uhlenhake said she remembers a teacher talking about the importance of voting back in her eighth-grade history class. Her parents and two older sisters vote regularly, and she's more than ready to step up to the plate, she said.
"I work and pay taxes too. My opinion should matter just as much as the next person," she said. "I deserve a say in my future."