Deadline extended on bill to lower voting age in Northampton elections

By Nidavirani (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Aryan Rai
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — A decision by a legislative committee Wednesday to delay action on a bill to expand the electorate in Northampton is good news, said Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton. 

“I am excited that it was extended,” Sabadosa said about H.830, which would lower the voting age for residents to 16 for preliminary and city elections. “Northampton’s home rule petition was one of the very few around lowering the voting age that was extended. So, it is a good sign, and it speaks to the work done by the advocates in the city.”

Although the bill deals specifically with Northampton, it can set a precedent, if passed, for the entire state, “a higher hurdle to cross,” said Sabadosa.

“There is little statewide support for this,” she said. “We are still grappling with issues around privacy and how to maintain separate voter rules and questions about how this would be implemented practically.”

The collaboration between the advocates and the elected Northampton leaders is going to be imperative in figuring out how to respond to some of the questions and details of the bill that need to be addressed before it is passed, Sabadosa added.

The bill was addressed by the Legislature’s Election Laws Committee last June in a virtual hearing with testimony from Northampton officials, including city councilors, the mayor, and members of the Northampton Youth Commission.

Seven months later, “the support among the elected city leaders continues to be unanimous,” assured Youth Commission member Dahlia Breslow. “We have checked in with every single city councilor and the new mayor. The support is constant.”

Despite the delay, Breslow and her team, in collaboration with the elected leaders, are “100% going to try again.”

Since the hearings, the Youth Commission also has collected over 500 additional signatures on the petition in support of the bill, Breslow added. “We have spent a lot of time on the streets of Northampton, talking to community members and citizens. It has been a positive experience.”

The bill has invited favorable reactions since its introduction. Many believe giving younger individuals seats at the electoral table will help tackle the low voter turnouts over the past years. Allowing people to vote at the young age of 16 could help them get accustomed to it early on, and improve electoral participation, in the long run, said Ward 2 City Councilor Karen Foster.

“They (youngsters) will have a say in who the city leadership will be,” Foster said. “It kind of levels the table a little bit if you can vote for people who will be implementing the changes you want to see.”

The Youth Commission is invested in getting a vote on School Committee members, said Foster.

“Climate change is also an issue that is a priority for them,” she said.

Foster underscored the “Plastic Reduction & Sustainability Ordinance” as an example of how “engaged” the younger leadership has been. The Youth Commission drove the charge on the ordinance that was signed last month. Though it has been delayed due to supply chain issues, once implemented, it will ban the use of Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastics in the city.

Throughout the pandemic, the Massachusetts Legislature has witnessed a wave of bills that concern voting rights expansion and election laws. Two additional home rule proposals, H.831 and H.832, proposing allowing mail-in ballots and resident non-citizens to vote in municipal elections were sent to a study committee, making their future uncertain.

While the House voted last week in favor of another popular bill H.4359, that made mail-in ballots a permanent option, they omitted the much-debated proposal to allow same-day registration approved by the Senate.

Advocates are firm in their commitment to the local voting age change.

“That is the thing about lowering the voting age, we are not doing this for us,” said Breslow. “It is for the future generations that, like us, have valid opinions and thoughts. And, like us, they deserve to vote.”

This article originally appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette

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