By Guy Page
The Vermont Senate Friday approved a Brattleboro town charter change allowing 16 and 17 year olds and some 15 year olds to vote in town elections and run for office.
The charter change was passed by the House last April. Friday’s vote gave H361 preliminary Senate approval. If given final approval by the Senate tomorrow morning, the charter change will go to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature. The bill passed both House and Senate with more than a two-thirds vote, indicating a veto override might succeed.
Last year, the Legislature approved Montpelier and Winooski charter changes giving non-citizens the right to participate in local elections. In September the Vermont GOP and several interested citizens filed suit against the law, calling it “a blatant attack on election integrity” that violates the state constitution which requires Vermont voters to be U.S. citizens.
Chapter II, Section 42 of the Vermont Constitution reads:
“Every person of the full age of eighteen years who is a citizen of the United States, having resided in this State for the period established by the General Assembly and who is of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and will take the following oath or affirmation, shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state.”
Supporters of non-citizen and youth voting say the Constitution applies only to state voting, not municipal voting. Under H361, all teens who turn 16 by Town Meeting Day are permitted to register to vote in local elections.
The nine senators voting no Friday included seven Republicans and two Democrats: Sens. Alice Nitka (Windsor) and Mark MacDonald (Orange). Sen. Robert Starr (Essex-Orleans), who is listed as a Democrat on the legislative website, voted yes with the majority.
In an op-ed submitted this weekend, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) – one of the nine “no” votes – said giving non-taxpayers the right to tax others sets a bad precedent.
“The Brattleboro teenagers under 18 who’d become select board members were going to be given authority to tax, but they had no responsibility to pay those taxes,” Benning said. “It was, in a sense, complete reversal of the concept of ‘no taxation without representation.’ Authority without responsibility is bad precedent.”
“Oddly enough,” Benning added, “We’re pursuing this path at the very same time we are seeking to ‘raise the age’ of those subject to adult criminal penalties, after recognizing the human brain doesn’t reach full development before the mid 20’s.”
Also, the Vermont House is considering a bill to prohibit underage marriage.
The House vote last year stirred citizen protest, including Robert Fireovid of Grand Isle County: “Looking back, I have to you say that all the 16-year-old teenagers in my world, including my kids and myself, were clueless – clueless about what it takes to be wholly responsible for my own welfare, let alone be responsible for the welfare of everyone in my community,” he wrote in a May 10 op-ed in the Vermont Daily Chronicle. “Giving voting privileges to 16 and 17 year-olds dilutes the voting rights of those 18 and older.”
The Brattleboro charter change was celebrated by town resident and Senate President Becca Balint (D-Windham).
“As a resident and voter of Brattleboro, as a former social studies teacher, and as someone who got my start in politics by being an elected member to our Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting, I support this charter change. We have been talking about this for a long time in my hometown. And the vote was overwhelming at representative town meeting.
“Vermont is held together by duct tape, twine, and civic engagement. We should do all we can to get residents engaged in our democracy early in their lives. I’m proud the Senate supported this charter change and I’m excited for the young people of Brattleboro who have fought for this opportunity over the past ten years.”
The push for teenage voters is a nationwide effort. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) voted for a bill that approved teen voting. The bill failed in the House, however.
The website procon.org lists three pros to 16-year-old voting:
- 16 year olds and knowledgeable and capable of making wise decisions.
- Lowering the voting age will increase turnout.
- At age 16, people should have a voice in determining their nation’s laws and policies.
and three cons:
- Kids under age 18 aren’t mature enough to participate in elections.
- The 18-29 age group has low turnout numbers, suggesting people even younger aren’t ready to participate.
- The majority of voting Americans do not support 16 year old voting.