Northampton Youth Commission columnists Dahlia Breslow and Lila Nields-Duffy: Vote16 would make Northampton a better place

Published: 11/26/2021 2:44:14 PM
Modified: 11/26/2021 2:43:57 PM

Editor’s note: This is the first of a new monthly column by the Northampton Youth Commission. The first few columns will address some of the concerns raised about Vote16, the proposal to lower the voting age in Northampton to 16.

The Northampton Youth Commission, the official city body dedicated to representing young people, is working on a campaign to lower Northampton’s municipal voting age to 16. The fight to lower the voting age in Northampton has persisted for around a decade, but recently gained significant momentum. Last June, the Youth Commission’s bill (H.830) was heard before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws.

In preparation, we took to the streets of downtown Northampton and talked with citizens about their opinions on lowering the voting age. Despite broad support throughout the city, there is still a large lack of information about what lowering the voting age would mean for our community.

If the voting age is lowered, 16- and 17-year-olds would be able to vote for Northampton’s mayor, City Council, School Committee, and for ballot initiatives. They would not be able to vote in state or federal elections. And we are not the first American city to do this, either. Five cities in Maryland allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections, and this movement is only growing — and for good reason.

Data shows that lowering the voting age would increase voter turnout, engage young people in local government, and empower them to vote on matters that directly affect them. Additionally, 16- and 17-year-old first-time voters are more likely to make voting a habit that continues throughout their lifetimes.

We acknowledge that not all Northampton residents share our views. The Youth Commission is open to opinions regarding our policies and initiatives, and hope that these columns will be a tool for the commission to receive ideas and feedback from the community.

Recently, in response to our efforts to lower the voting age, members of the community have raised concerns about the potential for property tax increases if the voting age is lowered. This piece will specifically address this concern, and 16- and 17-year-old’s stake in Northampton’s economy.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20-24% of people ages 16 to 17 are part of the civilian labor force. This quantification demonstrates that a substantial number of 16- and 17-year-olds pay income taxes. Young people have a stake in the local economy — many are employed, pay taxes, shop, and are overall impacted by the shape of downtown Northampton.

First of all, the concern that property taxes would increase is understandable. For property owners on a fixed income, tax increases are a constant worry. The recent property tax override has only added to that stress. But the fact is that similar overrides have been passed three times in the last 20 years — and for none of these elections have 16- and 17-year-olds voted. Like any other voting class, 16- and 17-year-olds are made up of a diverse population of people with varying opinions and experiences.

Assumptions about the voting choices of all young people are inherently incorrect. In fact, the Youth Commission has made affordable housing one of its priorities, by actively advocating for zoning ordinances that would benefit our community. Although young people may lack the perspective of a property owner, they will not take the decision to increase property taxes lightly.

Additionally, the requirement to own property in order to vote started to disappear 200 years ago. Today millions of renters along with the houseless community can vote because of this. We believe 16- and 17-year-olds should be granted the same right.

Northampton’s municipal voting age should be lowered because of the numerous ways that our city will benefit from it — specifically achieving fair representation and high civic engagement. Not only do young people pay taxes and significantly contribute to the economy and to the community, but lowering the voting age is proven to increase civic engagement and voter turnout, and would give young people the voice they deserve, and are already using, to make our city a better place.

Dahlia Breslow is a junior at Northampton High School and co-chair of the Northampton Youth Commission. Lila Nields-Duffy is a sophomore at NHS and a Youth Commission member.

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