Let 17-year-olds vote
LOWELL, Mass.—We are teenagers – 17-year-old teenagers – and at a time of increasing voter apathy, we want to vote. We’ve come up with a way to encourage our peers to become good life-long voters and combat decreased voter turnout – by lowering the voting age to 17 in our hometown’s municipal elections here in Lowell.
Our bill, currently in a statehouse committee, would provide for a city ballot question in November 2013 to let Lowell voters decide whether or not 17-year-olds can vote in its municipal elections, and only its municipal elections. If yes, 17-year-olds will be able to vote in 2015, for the first time anywhere in the country. Lowell has led in historic efforts before: from the Industrial Revolution to Mill Girl strikes to having the first co-ed high school in the country. We are ready to lead again.
We started the voting age movement after a 2009 youth-led city council candidates’ forum held by a nonprofit youth development organization, the United Teen Equality Center (better known as UTEC, where we serve as youth organizers). Before the forum, teens surveyed hundreds of their peers to find out what the top issues were. Youth representation was among the top three issues. All city council candidates were asked if they would support lowering the voting age to 17 in our local elections; 18 out of 19 said yes.
In 2010, the Lowell City Council successfully passed a home-rule petition that was sent to the Statehouse. With its favorable passage from the Joint Committee on Election Laws, our bill has now made it further than any other bill of its kind. Now our bill has to go through both the House and Senate floor to reach the governor’s desk by July 31. After the governor receives our bill, it will come back to Lowell for a final vote.
It seems illogical for 18 to be the voting-age threshold. Eighteen-year-olds are either starting work or going to college, often in a city far from home. At best, they find that their first opportunity to vote locally is by mailing in an absentee ballot. Seventeen-year-olds are still at home, likely still in school and definitely still affected by their local politics. They are directly impacted by local policies affecting our schools and community. Seventeen-year-olds are surrounded with the support they need to be coached through practicing their civic rights. They are in the last stage of their lives before they leave and begin adulthood. It is at this age that the next generation should be taught and guided through voting.
There’s evidence that 17-year-olds are intellectually ready to vote. A research study done in 2011 by Rutgers University at Camden professors Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins found that 16- and 17-year-olds score the same on questions about political knowledge as 21-year-olds. Seventeen-year-olds are usually seniors in high school and have usually completed their history or civics requirements. They have a leadership role in their schools and are busy preparing for their futures; voting should be built into this stage in life.
In 1970, it made sense to lower the voting age to 18 from 21 because of the changing times. Ted Kennedy in his speech to the Senate in 1971 said: “Our young people today are far better equipped – intellectually, physically, and emotionally – to make the type of choices involved in voting than were past generations of youth.” He also said: “I believe that both the exercise of the franchise and the expectation of the franchise provide a strong incentive for greater political involvement and understanding.” All that still holds true.
We know that voting at 17 will increase voter turnout in our community. According to Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell’s research, when high school students are exposed to civic norms and practices, voter turnout increases by 7 percentage points. Peter Levine, Director of Circle (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University testified at our public hearing for our bill and stated that voting at an early age becomes habitual. He said that today’s system “is a recipe for low turnout, and the effects are lasting, because research shows that voting is a habitual behavior.” A study done by Penn State political scientist, Eric Plutzer in 2002, found that the best way to create participating voters is to use the idea of habitual voting to get young people voting in their hometowns early.
Over the coming days, we look forward to working with Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo to transform our bill into an opportunity for Lowell to be the pilot for this idea. In fact, Circle has committed to help continue to research the impact of allowing 17-year-olds to vote and get practical results. As stated in an editorial in the Republican, a local newspaper in Springfield: “Everyone likes to bemoan the low rates of voter participation across our nation. Here’s a golden opportunity to look at one way of increasing turnout. The arguments – on both sides – are only theoretical now. Getting some practical results only makes sense.” This past year Lowell saw a voter turnout of less than 19.75 percent, the lowest in its history. This is a major challenge to our democracy.
Our bill is unique. It asks for the state legislature to allow the people of our city to be able to vote on this issue by placing the question as a referendum on Lowell’s 2013 municipal ballot. To do so, we need the state legislature’s approval by July 31. Each of the more than 40 teens who work on this campaign has his or her own personal motivation for becoming involved. For some, it is because they once felt discouraged and disengaged by the system. For others, it is being able to fight for the next generation that is the most rewarding. Ultimately, we feel that the people of Lowell deserve to have a say on whether 17-year-olds should vote in municipal elections. That’s why we’ve adopted the rallying cry of “Let Lowell Vote!” It’s time to try something new.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Gregg Croteau.