Town Meeting’s vote to lower the voting age is just the first step (Updated)

A Citizen's Petition was supported by Town Meeting, but efforts by other towns haven't made it through the state legislature. Here's my recap of the TM discussion and the road ahead.

On Saturday night, Annual Town Meeting voters approved seeking permission for 17 year olds to participate in Southborough’s Municipal Elections. That’s still far from a lock, given that other communities have been on hold with similar asks.

The discussion prior to the vote spotlighted that the change would also extend to other rights linked to voting beyond casting ballots in the Town’s annual election.

I’m writing up some highlights from the discussion and potential implications. I also followed up our Town’s representatives in the state legislature about their positions.

At Town Meeting, 18 year old petitioner James Nichols-Worley advocated that we shouldn’t wait until teens turn his age to engage them in Town government.

Nichols-Worley began serving on the St. Mark’s Street Working Group while still 17 years old. But there are other committees that require members to be registered voter. One of those is the the Southborough Public Accessibility Committee (SPAC) which has a vacancy.

With pre-arranged permission from the Moderator and approval by the hall, 17 year old Cassie Melo* spoke in support of the petition. She noted that she asked about helping on SPAC, but couldn’t because of the restriction. [Note: I looked at the Town’s website and found close to 30 current vacancies on Town committees.] 

At the other end of the age spectrum was John Thorburn who noted he is 85 years old. He told the crowd that he was “deeply struck” by the young people who participated at Town Meeting. “They are the future”.

Building on a comment by Heath Widdis that 17 year olds can join the military, Thorburn agreed that if “they’re old enough to die for us”, they should be allowed to vote.

Asked to explain their vote of Not Support, Advisory Committee member Tim Martel said that an unintended consequence was that voters would qualify to run for elected positions. 18 year old Noah Labelle argued that was a benefit not defect. 18 yr old Ben Schanzer echoed the position and noted that if the Town doesn’t want those candidates in office, they’ll vote against them.

Stanley Moschella was fine with younger people voting for Town candidates But he worried about them weighing in on budgets. If students want to pass a big spending project at Algonquin, hundreds of students could turn out and impact the budget. Phil Labelle opposed thinking of the rights as tiered. He said that we don’t stop people who rent from being able to vote on budgets and if youth wants to drum up a big turnout, let them. 

It’s worth noting that most of those who showed up to vote for the big GonkPlex project earlier on the Warrant were parents and only a few 18 year olds. (Although as the ARHS seniors noted, in that case they won’t be able to personally benefit from the project. Those young enough to see the results of construction were too young to vote themselves.)

The petition Article asks for the Select Board to send in a letter to the state legislature requesting the rule change for Southborough. Four of the five board members enthusiastically supported the initiative, so presumably they will follow through on the request. I followed up with the petitioner who responded that he believes Southborough’ Town Counsel has to review the language before the Select Board approves it. 

After Boston City Council passed lowering their voting age in November, GBH news posted that even if signed off on by Boston Mayor Wu:

it will then go to the state Legislature, which has chosen not to support similar proposals from several other Massachusetts communities. . .

Before the vote, At-Large Councilor Julia Mejia acknowledged the long road ahead but vowed to push hard for the measure’s ultimate passage on Beacon Hill.

“We know what happens at the State House — most things go there to die,” said Mejia, who was one of the proposal’s architects.

According to that story, if the legislature ever does pass one of these petitions, it would also need to be ratified by the Governor.

I tried reaching out to our Representative in the State House, Kate Donaghue. I didn’t hear back directly in time for this story.** But Nichols-Worley told me that she told him she is familiarizing herself with the Home Rule petition process. Earlier this year, Donaghue answered questions about her opinion of the petition for an piece in Algonquin’s school paper the Harbinger by Cassie Melo*:

“I think there are many advantages to giving 16 and 17 year olds the ability to vote in town elections,” Donaghue said. “There are teens who aren’t paying much attention to what’s happening in their town, but there are also some older residents who aren’t.”

I also reached out to Southborough’s State Senator Jamie Eldridge sits on the Mass House and Senate’s Joint Committee on Election Laws. In addition to his position on Southborough’s request, I asked about a bill recently referred to that committee, H.686. It is an effort for a statewide change to lowering the municipal voting age to 16 (following through on a similar bill filed in the prior session).

Eldridge said that unless something was really problematic, he would be obligated to file a Home Rule Petition by the town. In this instance, he will be happy to do that, since he supports the concept. He believes the reason past efforts haven’t succeeded is that the state legislature tends to be cautious (and in his opinion “too cautious”) about making changes for individual towns. He hopes that the continuing efforts by individual towns will pressure the legislature to pass the change statewide.

As for the process, he believes it will likely first go to the Municipal Committee, which then usually forwards all of the bills related to elections to the Joint Elections Committee. That committee would then schedule a public hearing.

The other efforts I cited were all for giving the voting right to 16 year olds. Nichols-Worley has said he chose 17 years old because he thought lowering the age by just one year might have a better chance of passing.

*[Full Disclosure: I am Cassie Melo’s mother.]

**Updated (3/30/22 11:22 am): I heard back from Representative Donaghue this morning. She confirmed that once the formal petition is filed by the Town, she will endorse it. In addition to supporting the Town’s support for the change, she also believes in encouraging teens to begin voting before they head off to college where often barriers make it more difficult.

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