Lawmakers hear testimony on lowering voting age in Northampton

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston FILE PHOTO

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/23/2021 8:37:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city is one step closer to allowing 16- and 17-year-old residents to vote in municipal elections.

The state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws held a virtual hearing Wednesday and took testimony from Northampton officials and youth leaders about a plan to lower the voting age, which was unanimously approved by the City Council and by Mayor David Narkewicz last year.

Local leaders, including several members of the Northampton Youth Commission, spoke in support of three home rule petitions to expand voting access in the city.

If passed, House bill H.830 would allow Northampton to enroll voters at age 16 for local elections; H.831 would require mail-in ballots to be sent to every registered voter 14 days prior to all local elections, including preliminaries; and H.832 would extend municipal voting rights to non-U.S. citizens who are legal residents of Northampton.

All three bills were sponsored by state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

Between 2009 and 2017, local voter turnout never exceeded 54%, said Sabadosa at the hearing, and Northampton wants to make voting easier and more accessible. She said a lower voting age would allow young people “to flex those muscles of civic participation.”

Changing the minimum voting age requires an amendment to the city charter, which was recommended by the Charter Review Committee. Supporters of the plan include the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Northampton School Committee and the Hampshire Regional YMCA.

“I’m tremendously grateful for the work of the Northampton Youth Commission, a powerful commission,” said state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, during the hearing. “This bill gives (young people) the power to vote, which they need, are asking for, and deserve.”

Noah Kassis, chairperson of the youth commission, underscored that the home rule petitions represent the “overwhelming will” of the city. He said the commission has submitted written testimony showing hundreds of letters of support from residents and business owners.

Youth commission member Dahlia Breslow said that, despite negative stereotypes, research shows that a 16-year-old is capable of making rational choices “when alone in a voting booth, and not hurried, and not pressured.” Private voting, she said, is not subject to outside pressure from parents, teachers, or anyone else, and young people do not have a unified political worldview.

Northampton City Councilors Karen Foster of Ward 2, James Nash of Ward 3, Rachel Maiore of Ward 7 and At-Large Councilor Bill Dwight offered testimony supporting the voting changes. Dwight asked the joint committee to consider “any and all similar initiatives” statewide.

Several elected leaders testified that people under 18 years old are critical to political campaigning and canvassing. Northampton youths, many speakers pointed out, did most of the work to enact a ban on Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic take-out containers at city restaurants, and they regularly organize political protests and other direct actions.

“Many of the decisions that we make at the local level do affect young people … maybe especially the school budget,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz testified. “Not only does (lowering the voting age) expand democracy in our community, but I think it will get young people more involved early on to become regular voters.”

Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at Tufts University, testified in favor of Northampton’s efforts. He said that allowing high school students to vote would improve their civics education and lead to lifelong engagement.

“Voting is a habitual act. … The inertia of non-participation can prevent young people from forming positive civic habits,” Lundberg said. “Whether young people begin to form this habit depends on what is happening around them. … It is a combination of norms, education and actions.”

Speaking in support of H.832, Comerford said non-citizen residents work and own businesses in Northampton, buy houses, pay taxes, sit on volunteer committees and send their children to local schools. She said they deserve a say at the ballot box.

“This bill shows Northampton’s very strong, unequivocal commitment to promoting civic engagement for all,” she said.

The joint committee is considering more than three dozen bills changing election procedures in cities and towns around the state. House bill H.791 would give municipalities throughout Massachusetts the right to lower the voting age to 16.

If a bill receives a favorable report from the joint committee, it will be sent to the full Legislature for consideration.

Written testimony will be accepted until Friday, June 25, at 3 p.m. Comments should be emailed to michaela.gaziano @masenate.gov and sean.getchell@mahouse.gov.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy