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Looking toward November: Why we should lower the voting age to 16 

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton High School student Ethan Grant, 17, at City Hall downtown. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Thursday, July 05, 2018

Every other Wednesday during the school year, at 7 p.m., I join a group of around 10 other teenagers trickling in the back door of City Hall in Northampton. We meet around a couple of tables in a conference room there and start talking politics.

We are the Mayor’s Youth Commission, a group designed to give the city’s youth a political voice. I joined the commission last fall after learning about it from a friend; she was already a member. Like me, most members join because they have ideas for solutions to problems they see in their community. Since its founding under former mayor Clare Higgins in September 2001 (I was only a few months old back then), the youth commission has been the source of a number of projects: organizing an anti-bullying rally at Northampton High School, creating programs on local radio and public access TV channels, and sponsoring a benefit concert to raise money for the Northampton Senior Center, for example. Perhaps the most well-known youth project was the downtown Northampton “art bench” initiative, in which local artists (and some Northampton public school students) decorated the city’s benches. 

Although these projects are initiated and largely driven by kids in the youth commission, current and former members have benefited considerably from the advice of the city government’s liaison to the commission, Northampton city councilor and Florence Pie Bar employee, Bill Dwight, who is present at all of the meetings and coaches us on political processes, such as how to draft a resolution.

Our current project might just be our most politically significant action yet: We want to lower the voting age in the City of Northampton to 16.

Under Dwight’s supervision, the members of the youth commission have been drafting a resolution — referred to as R-18.097 — which would help us to achieve that goal. Our hope is that  Northampton could become the first city in Massachusetts to expand voting rights to citizens younger than 18. We see voting as a right that is being denied to 16- and 17-year-olds based on an arbitrary age difference: 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. Many of us weren’t yet born in 1971 when the 26th amendment was passed, establishing the current national voting age of 18, down from 21. The argument used then was that if 18-year-olds were being asked — and in many cases, forced — to fight and possibly die for their country in Vietnam, they deserved the right to vote.  

Early on in this project, we learned the difference (and that there is a difference) between a resolution and a bill. A resolution is not voted into law; it’s simply a document that states an opinion. But if that opinion has enough support, a bill could be drafted around it, which could then — someday — become law. To legally lower Northampton’s voting age is our end goal. R-18.097 “calls upon the Northampton City Council to petition the Massachusetts Legislature to allow the City of Northampton to establish a minimum voting age … of sixteen years for all municipal elections.” As city governments cannot create laws of their own (laws can only be established on a state or federal level), the purpose of R-18.097 is to encourage the city government to support a state bill to lower the voting age. This bill is what we could actually send to the state Senate in Boston, where it could be approved and put on a ballot.

There are three basic steps toward our goal. First, the resolution must be approved by the Northampton City Council. Second, the bill must be approved by the Massachusetts Legislature. Third, the bill must be approved and voted into law by Northampton citizens. As we are realizing, this is a delicate process: The effort can be completely shut down at any one of these stages.

We’ve already taken the first step. On May 3, I watched the nine members of the council discuss R-18.097 at their bimonthly public meeting in their chambers behind City Hall. It was unanimously supported. The resolution was not voted on, however; instead, it was moved to the Subcommittee on Legislative Matters (chaired by Dwight), where it currently sits. Once the resolution passes through this committee, it will reappear on the council’s meeting agenda, where it will finally be officially voted on.

If it is approved, barring any unforeseen obstacles, the next step that the youth commission will take is to draft a bill to send to the state Senate. This stage of the process is where other attempts to lower the voting age have failed in Massachusetts. Groups of teenagers in Cambridge (in 2002) and Lowell (in 2011) have attempted to pass similar laws, lowering the municipal voting ages in their cities to 17. Both attempts were supported by their respective city governments, but neither bill made it through the state Senate.

Still, we’re confident that things are different this time around. We believe that the momentum created by recent local youth activism and political involvement in the debate on gun laws will be sufficient to prove to legislators that expanding suffrage to teenagers will, in fact, result in increased voter participation. The resolution is not universally supported by local people, however. Northampton resident Chelsea Sahn, for example, believes that the voting age should remain at 18 because, Sahn says, “Teenagers don’t fully understand the voting process.” Still, the overwhelming majority of the feedback that the we’ve received has been positive. Most people who hear about what we’re doing seem excited about the idea of Northampton leading the way forward on this socially progressive issue.

Northampton could set a great example for other cities considering lowering the voting age to follow. The general attitude of the commission is one of hopeful optimism. Our primary concern, at the moment, is getting the bill passed through the state Legislature.

The projected time frame for this project is relatively short in the overall scheme of things. R-18.097 will return to the City Council for a vote in the coming weeks, and if it is approved, a bill could be sent to Boston shortly thereafter. If the bill makes it through the state Legislature, it could appear on a ballot as early as November’s election. And if all goes according to plan, that will be the very last election that 16- and 17-year-olds will
be prohibited from participating in, at least in Northampton.

You can view the resolution online at northamptonma.gov/agendacenter/viewfile/item/9934?fileid=105873.