By Guy Page
A Brattleboro charter change allowing 16 and 17-year-old students to vote in local elections and hold local office passed the Senate 16-8 this morning, after lively discussion.
The Senate will vote on H.386 for third and final reading tomorrow. If approved, it will go to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk for approval or veto. Scott has vetoed underage voting municipal charter changes in the past.
Sen. Russ Ingalls (R-Essex) said giving teens the right to vote and be elected flies in the face of other Senate decisions to make the age of accountability higher, not lower.
The Senate has held that “people up to the ages of 19 that they just aren’t capable of making smart decisions…. We ought to be consistent with the rules passed by this body,” Ingalls said. “If someone can’t be held responsible because they did not understand the decisions they were making, I cannot support this bill.”
A Democratic senator from Chittenden County agreed – at least on the half of the bill allowing election to and service on a local board.
“What I cannot get over is a 16 or 17 year old serving on an elected council,” Sen. Tom Chittenden said. “I don’t think they should serve.” First, a good lawyer could “make hay” of any board decisions put into effect by a minor. Also, making controversial decisions invites severe criticism – even death threats – on social media, and teenagers shouldn’t be exposed to that, Chittenden said.
Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison), chair of the Government Operations Committee, said her committee has included a clause specifically affirming that teens are allowed to sign contracts as local school board and municipal council members.
Sen. Becca White (D-Windsor), a one-time non-voting high school representative to a school board, called the current adults-only voting and serving scheme “an oligarchy of older Vermonters.”
But Republican majority leader Randy Brock said the bill flies in the face of other non-adult prohibitions.
“There are some things we don’t allow 16 and 17 year olds to do,” Randy Brock said – serving in the military and drinking, for instance. “This is not the place for this kind of experimentation.”
Of the Democrats in the Senate, Richard Mazza (Colchester, Grand Isle) and Chittenden voted no.