As Massachusetts prepares to expand civic education in the schools, the idea of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to actually cast ballots in local elections is picking up steam in several communities.
Following a 2018 Town Meeting vote, Concord is seeking special legislation to lower the voting age to 17 in its town elections. By a 7-4 vote, Malden city councilors last December rejected a teen group’s proposal that it seek legislative approval to reduce the city’s voting age to 16. The Somerville City Council is considering the same proposal.
In the western portion of Massachusetts, Ashfield, Shelburne, and Wendell in 2017, and Northampton last fall, voted to pursue legislation for a 16-year-old local voting age.
Attempts to lower the voting age in municipal elections extend back more than a decade, including initiatives by Cambridge in 2002 and 2006, Harwich in 2007, and Lowell — led by its UTEC youth organization — in 2011. But to date, none have made it through the Legislature.
“Our elected leaders aren’t paying attention to 16- and 17-year-olds because they can’t vote,” said Somerville High School junior Felix Brody. “They are not the voices at town hall meetings, and their input isn’t taken into account.”
As leader of Vote16 Massachusetts, Brody is working with other students across the state to advocate for 16- and 17-year-olds’ local voting rights. The group’s current focus is the EMPOWER Act that has been proposed at the State House, which would give municipalities the option to make that change.
Brody said a common sentiment of the student advocates is that 16- and 17-year-old voters could help bring “the change we need in our country.”
“As we’ve seen with movements like March for Our Lives, young people are very aware of the issues that affect them locally and nationally,” Somerville Mayor Joseph A Curtatone, who offered the proposal to lower Somerville’s voting age, said in a statement. “They’re also the people who will be inheriting the results of the plans and policies we put in place now. They should have some say in both their current situation and their future.”
Nationally, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, a freshmen Democrat from Boston, introduced a measure earlier this month to lower the voting age in federal elections to 16 beginning in 2020. Her proposal, offered as an amendment to a sweeping anti-corruption and government reform bill, failed by a vote of 305-126.
Christine Cedrone, a former School Committee member and chair of the Republican City Committee in Quincy, opposes extending local voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds because “I think their minds are still growing and developing. I just don’t think they’re old enough or have the ability to make that choice ... or that they’re really paying attention to politics at that age.”
But supporters cite studies that by age 16, adolescents have reached the level of cognitive development needed to make voting decisions.
State Representative Tami L. Gouveia, an Acton Democrat who has filed Concord’s home rule bill on the town’s behalf, questions why teens should be deemed unready to vote when “we let young people 16 or 17 years old drive around in 2,000-pound vehicles.”
Cirino Costa, a Melrose resident and Malden Catholic High School junior, favors keeping the voting age at 18 because that’s the stage people “start interacting with the government.”
But Malden High junior Jimmy Li, part of a group of teens within the Malden Rising Leaders youth organization that proposed lowering the city’s voting age, said he thinks “most teens are mature enough to go vote and do the right thing.” He notes that many 16- and 17 year-olds already balance school work, athletics, and jobs.
“Voting is the direct way that politicians and city officials will hear the voice of teens,” Li said. “I think we are ready to vote by the time we’re 16. We already have so many adult responsibilities ... I feel like since we are living in Malden, we should have a say in what is going to happen in the city.”
The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1971, lowered the voting age nationwide from 21 to 18 without precluding states from reducing it further. Massachusetts made 18 its voting age in a 1972 state constitutional amendment and a later statute.
State Representative Andres X. Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat and co-lead sponsor of the EMPOWER Act, called the measure a natural next step after lawmakers last fall adopted legislation strengthening civics education in the public schools.
“Now that young people across the Commonwealth will have civic education, we should give them the tools to enfranchise themselves in local elections if they and the municipalities so choose,” said Vargas, who played a key role in the civics bill.
Vargas said lowering the voting age could boost overall turnout since teens may be more likely to cast their first vote at age 16 or 17 than 18, when they are preoccupied with the transition from home to college and jobs.
“If we give them the vote at a lower age, that creates voting as a habit,” he said, noting studies show that people who vote are more likely to do it again.
State Representative Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat, is chief sponsor of a separate bill that would lower the voting age to 16 for local elections in every city or town.
“For me, it’s all about engaging our young people and empowering them to vote and then to stay involved in our political system, and to stay as lifelong voters,” he said.
Abby Gordy, a senior at Concord-Carlisle High School who spoke at Concord Town Meeting in support of lowering the town’s voting age, said students can provide valuable insight about local schools because they are in them every day.
“It’s a perspective missing from the discussion in Concord about our education,” she said of 16- and 17-year-olds. “Personally, I’m pretty passionate about politics and civic engagement and I feel being able to get involved as soon as possible is really core to later involvement in life. If you start voting early, you are going to keep voting.”
Only four municipalities nationwide — all in Maryland — allow people under 18 to cast local election ballots. Takoma Park in 2013 and Hyattsville in 2015 lowered the voting age to 16, while Greenbelt and Riverdale Park last year voted to do so this fall.
In 2016, voters in Berkeley, Calif., approved lowering the voting age to 16 in school board elections — a change not yet implemented — according to Brandon Klugman, campaign manager for Vote16 USA.
But Klugman expects the list to grow, noting that in the past year, legislation to lower the voting age has been filed in 12 states. He also cited other local efforts, including a ballot initiative in San Francisco narrowly defeated in 2016 and one in Washington, D.C., rejected by the City Council last year. On March 5, residents in Brattleboro, Vt., approved lowering the local voting age to 16, a charter change that will require state legislative approval.
Klugman called the trend an outgrowth of growing interest in “youth civic engagement generally in the past year,” spurred in part by the March for Our Lives movement advocating for tighter gun laws.
Richard Pilla, a Walpole Town Meeting member and chair of the Norfolk County Republican Committee, opposes allowing younger students to vote because he thinks schools are not adequately preparing them for it.
“Our school districts have done a disservice to our students by not teaching civics and the Constitution,” he said.
But Malden City Councilor at large Stephen Winslow, who sponsored the council proposal in his city, said lowering the voting age could help get students engaged with democracy.
“Malden is a very diverse community and I feel as a political leader we have to figure out how to get our next generation involved civically,” he said.
Gouveia, the Acton state representative, said young people already are taking leadership roles in movements like the fight against climate change, so extending the voting age only makes sense.
“They are paying attention and advocating for the things they care about,” she said.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.