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Editorial: Lower the voting age in Northampton

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Earlier this month, Ethan Grant, a rising senior at Northampton High School, wrote an essay for Hampshire Life magazine about why he and other students who are part of the Mayor’s Youth Commission in Northampton believe that the city should lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. With the help of Councilor William H. Dwight, they drafted a resolution to bring them closer to that goal.

“We see voting as a right that is being denied to 16- and 17-year-olds based on an arbitrary age difference,” Grant wrote. “The resolution cites studies supporting the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds possess the same ‘critical analytic intelligence’ as their 18-year-old peers, and references a number of rights and responsibilities that 16-year-olds already have in the state of Massachusetts, such as the right to obtain a driver’s license, consent to sex, work full time and pay taxes.”

On July 12, the Northampton City Council unanimously approved the resolution. The next step is for the City Council to draft a home-rule petition to the Massachusetts Legislature. As City Council President Ryan O’Donnell told the Gazette, “Cities like Northampton can be laboratories … for the state. This is an experiment.”

We believe it is a worthy one. Engaging young people in our democracy is critical to its survival. And an early invitation into the voting process would “catch them early,” creating a stronger, more engaged voter base for the future.

Some of you are shaking your heads right now. Maybe you’re thinking that the maturity level just isn’t there. Let us clarify: We’re not talking about lowering the voting age for all elections — just municipal ones.

We know Northampton to be home to many politically aware, civic-minded 16- and 17-year-olds who are capable of doing their homework regarding candidates. (We let them drive and work, which requires as much, if not more, responsibility.) The students at Northampton High School, in particular, have gotten our attention — and our respect. We’ve reported on those same students as they’ve spoken out regarding a range of issues, from AP exam policy to #MeToo to gun reform.

Last month, a group of local students questioned candidates for the 1st Hampshire House and Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate seats on topics including protection for immigrants, transportation and the opioid crisis. “Our voices aren’t represented in a vote, so I think it’s really important for us to help our community decide who to represent us on Beacon Hill,” said one student organizer, Cherilyn Strader, 17, also a rising senior at NHS and founding member of Pioneer Valley Students For Gun Control.

We believe that such students should have a say in how they are represented — and protected — by their city government.

And, in large part, their city government agrees. So do many candidates currently running for office in our region. And so do many experts in the field of psychology, citing studies about “cold cognition,” the ability to reason logically and make informed, unhurried decisions, which is present in adolescents by the age of 16.

As Grant pointed out in his essay, if the resolution wins final approval, Northampton would be the first city in Massachusetts to expand voting rights to citizens younger than 18. But it wouldn’t be the first American city to lower its voting age to 16 for municipal elections. That distinction belongs to Takoma Park, Maryland, which made the change in 2013. In the first election with the new, young voters, the turnout rate for 16- and 17-year-olds exceeded that of any other age group.

It makes sense to encourage young people to be informed and take part in the governing process. Many 16- and 17-year-olds are prepared. (Some aren’t, but then again, some 40-year-olds aren’t prepared, either.) Many local decisions directly impact teens, particularly when it comes to schools.

These students have a stake in what happens in their communities. They also should have a voice at the polls.