Let 16-Year-Olds Vote in Local Elections, Advocates Say

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/06/23/let-16-year-olds-vote-in-local-elections-advocates-say/

Young people are affected by local issues and are already active in various left-of-center causes, so they should be allowed to vote in local elections, advocates of a bill to lower the voting age in Massachusetts said.

“We see young people leading the charge around racial justice, around climate change, around equity across all different policy proposals. And, so I just think it’s time for us to, you know, sort of have the legislature get out of the way of our cities and towns that want to move forward with lowering the voting age so that they can instill a love of democracy among young people,” state Representative Tami Gouveia (D-Acton) told the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws on Wednesday.

The legislative committee is considering legislation that would allow particular communities to allow 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to vote, as well as legislation that would allow all cities and towns in Massachusetts to make that policy decision without seeking a special act of the state legislature. The bills would not affect state or federal elections.

Committee members heard from more than a dozen teen-agers, many of them affiliated with local youth councils.

“Many problems, such as gun violence, systematic homophobia and transphobia, systematic racism, mental health, and climate change, have led us youth to have to grow up and mature and pay attention to our world more than previous generations had to. We want to participate to be able to make the choices of who we want to represent us,” said Isabella Petroni, chairman of the Framingham Youth Council, who was a high school senior when the city council created the body in 2019. “Municipal elections might be small-scaled, but municipal policy affects us greatly – from schools, to parks and recreation, to public health services. Many people my age feel that the world that has been left for us is broken. And we want the power to try to heal it, for both ourselves, and the generations after us.”

Supporters dominated the hearing, which lasted about four hours on Wednesday, June 23 and touched on several other measures, including bills that would legalize voting in local elections for non-citizens who are in the country legally and bills that would allow local communities to implement ranked-choice voting on their own in local elections.

Some supporters of the teen-voting bills said public officials should be forced to pay attention to what teen-agers want.

“It’s time to make sure that young people across Massachusetts are able to have a say in their local elections,” Boston city councilor Julia Mehia said. “We need local elected officials to be accountable to young people. And the best way to do that is by giving them the right to vote.”

One supporter of the teen-voting bills said it has already taken too long to lower the voting age.

“Young people have waited too long to see the change they wish to achieve, and cannot wait any longer,” said Hiba Eddaif, 16, co-chairman of the Cambridge Youth Council, which is a subcommittee of the city’s Family Youth Council.

Many of the speakers were from Northampton, a city in western Massachusetts where public officials are trying to implement youth voting and ranked-choice voting in time for the November 2021 city election. The city’s mayor and a candidate for mayor both spoke in favor of the proposal.

One supporter, Noah Kassis, a recent high school senior and chairman of the Northampton Youth Commission, mentioned Republican-controlled states that are implementing laws whose sponsors say are designed to cut down on voter fraud, but which opponents call voter suppression.

“We’re at a moment right now in this country where we’re essentially seeing Jim Crow Number Two. Right? We all know this. We know that there are states all across the country, controlled by legislatures that look very, very different from Massachusetts, that are passing restrictive laws. They are trying to prevent people from voting. They are trying to suppress the vote,” said Kassis, who plans to attend Harvard College. “We in Massachusetts need to send a bold and decisive message that we believe in democracy, that we’re going to expand suffrage and expand democracy rather than constrict it. We’re going to create a more participatory, a more deliberative, a more representative democracy in Massachusetts, while other states are trying to curtail the vote.”

Toward the end of the hearing a lone opponent of lowering the voting age brought up the possible effect on Proposition 2 ½, a state law approved by voters in 1980 that ordinarily limits yearly increases in a local community’s property tax levy to 2.5 percent plus allowances for new growth.

The law allows communities to increase the property tax levy beyond the ordinary limit if local voters approve an override, which may be permanent in the case of a town’s operating budget or temporary in the case of a building project. A typical beneficiary of an operating budget override is a city or town’s local public school system.

Tracey Putnam Culver, a Northampton resident, noted that some homeowners struggle to pay property taxes and would struggle more if taxes increase more rapidly than usual.

“Northampton claims to be always working to protect its most vulnerable citizens. And I kept this in mind when studying this request to lower the voting age to 16. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids don’t pay property taxes. However, they could help to vote in an override, which could raise property taxes that they do not pay. This could overburden those homeowners on fixed incomes or low incomes who must pay property taxes in order to stay in their homes,” Culver said.

She noted that Proposition 2 ½ was a hot potato when it was first proposed more than 40 years ago, and that many local government employees campaigned against it.

“Back in the ‘80s teachers here pushed students to pressure their parents to vote against imposing the 2 ½ percent cap on property taxes. It’s not a stretch to think that students might be pressured to vote for an override,” Culver said. “As a payer of property taxes in Northampton, I do not want teen-agers voting for an override because their teachers or parents tell them that they can get new iPads if it passes. Teens are not yet stakeholders, and bear no financial liability for their votes.”

She also suggested that some supporters of lowering the voting age may not be significantly affected by its possible results.

“Northampton is a well-to-do community. Teens living in households of wealthy, educated parents – those most likely to vote – may not be cognizant of or sensitive to the plight of low-income or fixed-income homeowners, and how an increase in taxes might affect them – some of our most vulnerable residents,” Culver said. “… This may seem like a noble endeavor, but pricing the old, infirm, and low-income out of their homes is certainly not noble.”

It’s not clear when or whether the Joint Committee on Election Laws will take action on the measures. The committee can vote to recommend the bills, vote to not recommend the bills, or not vote on them at all. Action by legislative committees is often influenced by the leaders of the state House of Representatives and state Senate.

Lowering the voting age for federal offices proved a hard sell in the Democratic-controlled Congress earlier this year. On March 3, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an amendment to an elections bill that sought to lower the voting age to 16 for elections for Congress and president, by a vote of 125 to 302.

All Republicans voted against it. Among Democrats, a majority supported it:  125 to 93.

U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Dorchester) was the prime sponsor.

Massachusetts has nine U.S. House members, all Democrats. Seven voted for the amendment to lower the voting age to 16 in March:  Ayanna Pressley (D-Dorchester), Katherine Clark (D-Melrose), Jim McGovern (D-Worcester), Richard Neal (D-Springfield), Jake Auchincloss (D-Newton), Seth Moulton (D-Salem), and Lori Trahan (D-Westford).

Two voted against it:  Bill Keating (D-Bourne) and Stephen Lynch (D-South Boston).