‘The world is falling apart as we’re growing up’: Teens lobby for voting age change

Teenagers from across Massachusetts went before the Legislature’s Committee on Election Laws at the State House on Wednesday January 22, 2020 to advocate for the Empower Act, which would grant municipalities the autonomy to lower the voting age for local elections. Photo by Shannon Larson / BU News Service

By Shannon Larson
BU News Service

BOSTON – Dozens of teens from across the state ventured to the Massachusetts Statehouse Wednesday afternoon to urge legislators to accept a proposal that would grant municipalities the autonomy to lower the voting age as low as 16 in local elections.

The high school students crowded into the first floor room, with the majority wearing shirts branded by slogans including “Massachusetts Vote16” and “March for Our Lives,” to testify to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws in support of the Empower Act.

Though the committee considered a couple of other bills related to increasing youth civic engagement, the bulk of the approximately two-hour hearing was dedicated to discussing S.389 and H.720 –  together known as the Empower Act.

In recent years, those born between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, also known as Generation Z, have emerged as a leading voice on key issues including gun control and climate change. In the past, teenagers have taken part in protests and school strikes and have engaged with elected officials, but the youth on Wednesday said that allowing them to vote was a crucial next step. 

Thomas Coulouras, 17, traveled from Longmeadow to participate in the day’s events. A co-special project manager for March for Our Lives-Massachusetts, he credited his age group with taking charge on a range of political movements with a shared motivation to take their future into their own hands.

The Massachusetts branch of the student-led group has been working closely with the local chapter of Vote16 USA on the Empower Act, Coulouras said. The campaign is organized by Generation Citizen to lower the eligible voting age at local elections. 

“It’s almost as if the world is falling apart as we’re growing up,” Coulouras said. “We’re the ones growing up seeing school shootings every other week. We’re the ones seeing our climate deteriorate … So we know that we need to fight for our future and we need to fight for our rights because we’ve seen that politicians aren’t. We need to be that voice because no one else is.”

The youth pointed out the number of adult-level responsibilities they are already entitled to, such as working, driving and paying taxes, and signaled that it could lead to increased voter turnout, which is typically low in state municipal elections.

Although the push to lower the voting age in local elections has been criticized by some who claim the teens are not mature enough to cast their ballot, 15-year-old Kaveesh Pathak said they haven’t been deterred.

Pathak, who heads endeavors with Coulouras to end gun violence, said he was attempting to encourage people to sign the group’s action network petition when a person told him, “I just don’t believe you all are ready.”

“There is pushback in definite areas,” said Pathak, a high school freshman from Lexington. “But there’s also so much support, like if you look at the support here in the Statehouse. And we still got tons of signatures when I went to go signature signing.”

More than 50 state representatives and senators have come out in favor of the Empower Act, and several accompanied the youth in delivering testimony to the committee, including bill co-sponsor, Rep. Andres Vargas.

A number of municipalities throughout Massachusetts, such as Cambridge, have attempted to lower the voting age for their residents by sending home rule petitions to the Legislature in the past, said Vargas, D-Haverhill.

Their efforts to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds have failed to come to fruition, with the bills dying on Beacon Hill, Vargas said.

“People have long been told that through consensus building and compromise, progress can be made,” Vargas testified. “And to be frank, the youth have pragmatically realized that this body is not going to pass a bill that outright lowers the voting age anytime soon. So we asked them to give a little to get a little, and they’ve done that.”

Under the Empower Act, towns and cities in the state would be able to bypass this process altogether. While the proposal would not mandate municipalities lower the voting age for local elections, it would authorize that they have the power to do so of their own accord.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone testified on behalf of both a home rule petition, which would allow for both 16 and 17-year-olds in Somerville to participate in local elections, and the larger Empower Act.

“Local issues aren’t a mystery to teenagers. They’re tired of their daily lives,” Curtatone said. “If we have the opportunity now to broaden our democracy, to increase local autonomy, increase electoral participation and give more people a voice in the issues that affect their lives in a day and age when it is an unfathomable truth that our democratic institutions are under assault, I submit we should take it.”

The campaign to lower the voting age in local elections has already been achieved in Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, and similar efforts are underway in several parts of the country, said Samuel Gebru, the development and partnerships manager for Generation Citizen in Massachusetts.

Enabling 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, before they leave home for college or enlist in the military, can help to solidify a consistent voting behavior, which in turn can lead to a long-term increase in voter turnout, Gebru said.

“All politics is local, and local government is the level of government that really does have the most direct, immediate impact on someone’s life,” he said. “And so for us to really work with these young folks and to amplify their voice, and for them to focus on local elections, I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Some legislators have “legitimate questions” about the Empower Act, Gebru said. The organization will continue working with members to provide more information to “help make them understand what’s going on here.”

Rep. John Lawn, House elections law chair, said after the hearing that he was “impressed with the amount of articulate and passionate youth” that spoke. The Watertown Democrat praised the teens for their political activism throughout the meeting.

“I thought it was a great show of democracy,” Lawn said. “Something that I think the committee will seriously be considering, and I look forward to working with all our youth to have their voices heard.”

The committee’s decision will likely come within the next month, Lawn said.

Coulouras said he is hopeful the proposal will be accepted.

“I have talked to my reps – they seem to be in support of it,” he said. “I see people in support of it, so that makes me think that, hopefully, they’ll pressure their representatives and then that public support will lead to political support.”

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