Amherst mulls lowering voting age

  • Amherst Town Hall FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman. KEVIN GUTTING/Gazette Staff

Staff Writer
Published: 7/25/2019 11:45:01 PM

AMHERST — Allowing residents under 18 and noncitizens to vote in local elections will be a significant challenge to implement in Amherst, according to the town’s attorney.

Lauren Goldberg of KP Law, in a July 17 letter to Town Manager Paul Bockelman, wrote that changing rules regarding who is eligible to vote, even if only for matters affecting town affairs, would depend on approval from the state Legislature.

“In my opinion, without a state constitutional amendment, no person under the age of 18 or who is not a citizen will be eligible to vote for the election of governor, lieutenant governor, senators or representatives,” Goldberg wrote.

Bockelman said he solicited the legal opinion because of a section of the charter that requires an investigation by Dec. 31 into possibly lowering the voting age and determining whether an avenue exists to allow noncitizens to vote. The charter was adopted in March 2018.

Specifically, the charter directs the Town Council or the town manager to “investigate the feasibility of … permitting noncitizens to vote in town elections and to seek and hold town elective office, and lowering the voting age for town elections.”

Goldberg discovered that several communities, including Northampton, Shelburne, Wendell, Ashfield, and Somerville, have attempted to lower the voting age, but even when bills are filed in the Legislature, none have been enacted into law.

In May, Northampton’s Charter Review Committee recommended that the city lower its voting age for municipal elections to 16.

Unlike Northampton, Amherst has not yet made any decision whether to pursue this action. Several times, however, Amherst Town Meeting voted to have legislation filed that would allow noncitizens, or resident aliens, to vote in local elections, most recently in spring 2017.

Retired state Rep. Ellen Story put forward home-rule petitions several times following the action, but these were always sent to a committee and never reached the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.

Two years ago, the Legislature considered a bill called “an act enabling cities and towns to extend voting rights in municipal elections to certain noncitizens of the commonwealth,” which would have allowed noncitizens who intend to become American citizens the right to vote in local elections. Like previous bills, this was never adopted into law.

Given the town attorney’s opinion, it’s uncertain how the Town Council will approach the topics.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said he wondered if Bockelman getting an opinion from KP Law fulfills the charter’s requirement. “Now that we have this opinion, what’s next?” Ross said.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said she worried that any efforts in Amherst might not succeed.

“Are we going to spend our time trying to get the point where we take something to the Legislature and like everyone else is refused?” Griesemer asked.

But Bockelman said the Town Council should at least consider the matter and put it on the agenda for discussion, and possibly engage with state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, about what can be done at the state level.

In addition, District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont said Amherst might be able to add its voice to support bills that lower the voting age and allow noncitizens the right to vote.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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