Bob DeLeo has served in the Legislature for a long time, and he isn't easily impressed by a group of lobbyists.
But the House speaker grows rapturous when he talks about a group of teenagers from Lowell who have stalked him and his House members all summer, lobbying for a chance to vote.
“They could teach a lesson — and not just to young people — on how to lobby for a bill,” DeLeo said yesterday. “They are tough, they are knowledgeable, and they are respectful. They’re great.”
The young people he was referring to have practically set up a summer camp at the State House. They are members of the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell and have spent the past couple of years pushing for their right to vote in city elections.
The equality center is a nonprofit that has operated in Lowell for over a decade, introducing young people to civic engagement. It is run by a high-energy social worker named Gregg Croteau, and one of its signature events is a candidates’ forum conducted by its members during every municipal campaign.
Two years ago, they asked the 19 candidates for City Council if they would support allowing 17-year-olds to vote, and 18 of them said yes. Out of that question, a campaign was born.
From their headquarters in downtown Lowell, the teens have steadily worked to build support for allowing 17-year-olds in the city to vote. Many Lowell officials have taken up their cause, and the Lowell Sun, which initially opposed the effort, now supports it editorially.
Their campaign has now come to Beacon Hill. Their bill is in committee, and they hope lawmakers act before the session ends later this month.
“The reason that I and a bunch of my peers want to vote is that the School Committee makes decisions that affect us,” said Corinne Plaisir, one of the activists. “[We] want a say in what’s going on.”
She said that many college-age voters ignore municipal elections because they don’t feel affected by the politics in their college towns.
High school students, she argued, would be different, because they would be voting for lawmakers whose policies affect them more directly.
“We’re really very confident that this can happen,” said Carline Kirksey, 17. “We door-knocked 3,000 residents last summer, and we got a really good response. That’s really fueled our optimism.”
The process is intricate. Under state law, voters have to be 18, and the process of bypassing that is complicated. First, the Legislature would have to pass a bill, currently pending, allowing Lowell to place a referendum on the ballot next year allowing 17-year-olds to vote. Then voters would have to approve the referendum in fall 2013. Were it to pass, 17-year-olds would begin voting in 2014, but only in municipal elections.
The prospects for the bill are murky. This legislative session is fast coming to a close, leaving the Lowell referendum vying for attention with dozens of other priorities. Time is running short to bring it to the floor.
In addition, the measure has also been opposed by some on Beacon Hill for legal reasons. Several months ago, Secretary of State William Galvin said he did not believe the bill passed legal muster.
But the measure has since been rewritten, and a spokesman for Galvin said yesterday that his legal concerns have all been resolved.
DeLeo was noncommittal about whether it will move this session. He said he has reservations about changing the qualifications for one community. “I think you have to do it statewide,” he said. “You can’t have an exception for just one city.”
Actually, the Legislature can. It just needs the will to do the right thing.
And if the current effort falls short, the campaign has been a civics lesson that could never be duplicated in a classroom. Like their adult counterparts, these kids are clearly in it to win, and win they should.