Sixteen-year-old Andrew Brown smiles at the thought: He cannot legally buy cigarettes or drink a beer, but come September, he will be able to vote for mayor in the city's primary.

A scheduling peculiarity will give thousands of Baltimore (search) 16-year-olds what could be a one-time-only opportunity to cast a ballot.

"We got the vote through a mistake, but we'll take it," said Brown, a junior at City College, a Baltimore high school. "On Election Day, I'm going to get my parents up early and go down to the polls and make a difference in how the city's run. Whoever made this mistake, thank you."

The real-life civics lesson was made possible this way: City voters decided in a referendum a few years ago to move the mayoral general election from 2003 to 2004 so that it would coincide with the presidential race. But only state lawmakers can change the date of a primary, and they adjourned in April without moving it closer to the general election.

As a result, there will be a 14-month gap between Baltimore's primary Sept. 9 and next year's general election.

Maryland law allows residents to vote in a primary if they reach 18 by the day of the general election, which is Nov. 2, 2004. Because of the 14-month gap, 16-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election will be eligible to vote in the primary (along with thousands more 17-year-olds than usual).

"This is perfectly legal -- but weird," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University (search) in Baltimore. "It's going to be a real circus. I've never heard of 16-year-olds ever voting legally before."

Activists in other states have been fighting for years to achieve what Baltimore's teenagers received accidentally.

In Iowa City, Iowa; Anchorage, Alaska; Cambridge, Mass.; Minnesota; Maine; and Texas, youth advocates have worked to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote.

In Palm Beach, Fla., Miranda Rosenberg, 15, has created an online petition drive -- www.voteat16.com -- to amend the Florida Constitution and lower the voting age by two years.

In 1971, as young men were being sent to Vietnam, the 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

Some experts are leery about allowing 16- and 17-year-olds in the voting booth.

"If you're old enough to fight and die and kill for a country, you ought to be old enough to vote on the policies of the country," Curtis Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (search). But "I just don't think 16-year-olds have the maturity to make such decisions."

Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat running for a second term, said he will reach out to 16-year-olds in coming months.

"Some of them care and some are apathetic, just like the adults," he said. "Maybe once the election comes and goes and opponents see that it didn't cause any outbreak of anarchy, things will change."

Baltimore activists said they plan go to door-to-door this summer registering voters, including 16-year-olds. "I don't think anyone can take their vote for granted," said Mitchell Klein of the activist group ACORN.

The 2000 Census listed about 9,600 13-year-olds and 9,100 14-year-olds in Baltimore. Many of them are now 16 or 17 and would be eligible to vote in the primary.

As of Monday, only two 16-year-olds had registered to vote. The deadline is Aug. 19.

"There are some 16-year-olds who are very aware of the political process," said city Elections Director Barbara Jackson, "but most are worrying about getting their driving licenses and who they're going to date this weekend."

Opening up the electorate to younger voters may be the solution to the problem of voter apathy, energizing a generation that will soon replace baby boomers as potential voters, said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"One could say there isn't a whole lot of difference between age 16 and age 18, in terms of voting," Gimpel said. "This could get younger people focused on their civic role more seriously."