Youth vote effort sees support and opposition

Maia McNeill gets Kayli and Lisa Nicholson, of Brattleboro, to sign a petition to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in an election.

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BRATTLEBORO — Some younger faces might be seen at the polls and their names on ballots.

On Friday, the Senate joined the House of Representatives in approve a charter change for Brattleboro that would give 16- and 17-year-olds the ability to vote in Representative Town Meeting and run to be a Town Meeting member and Select Board member.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, who is running for U.S. Congress, said she’s proud of the Senate for supporting the measure and excited for the young people of Brattleboro who fought for it over the past decade.

“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,” Balint said in a statement. “We have been talking about this for a long time in my hometown. And the vote was overwhelming at representative town meeting.”

Brattleboro residents approved the move in 2019 in a 908-408 vote, sending it to the Vermont Legislature to decide whether the town charter should be amended.

“Under Dillon’s Rule, the town’s charter is actually controlled by the state,” Town Manager Peter Elwell said at the time. “The change approved by the town’s voters cannot take effect until it has been approved by the Legislature and no additional charter-related action would be required by the town if/when the Legislature approves the change.”

VTDigger reported that Gov. Phil Scott’s spokesperson Jason Maulucci signaled Scott would likely veto the measure.

“The Governor believes that consistency from municipality to municipality on voter eligibility is important and that the age of eligibility to vote should remain 18 statewide (and 17 in primary elections if the voter will be 18 by election day),” Maulucci said, according to VTDigger.

The Youth Vote proposal came from Brattleboro Common Sense, a group focused on election reform and other progressive issues. Enough signatures were secured on petitions to trigger the town-wide vote.

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“Vermont is held together by duct tape, twine, and civic engagement,” Balint said. “We should do all we can to get residents engaged in our democracy early in their lives.”

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, who is running for lieutenant governor, voted against the measure. Brattleboro teenagers younger than 18 could be given authority to tax but had no responsibility to pay such taxes, he said.

“It was, in a sense, complete reversal of the concept of ‘no taxation without representation,’” he wrote. “Authority without responsibility is bad precedent.”

Also worried about setting another precedent, Benning suggested the possibility of the next proposal calling for the voting age to be 13 and older or younger.

“Do they not possess the same desire for political discourse that 16- and 17-year-olds do?” he wrote. “Oddly enough, 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.”

Isaac Evans-Frantz of Brattleboro, who graduated from Brattleboro Union High School and served on the State Board of Education from 2000-2001 as the first high school student with the right to vote on the board, described young people as “the future of our society.”

“Windham County’s population is among one of the oldest in age in the state, and Vermont’s median age is about 5 years higher than the national average,” Evans-Frantz wrote in an op-ed. “Gov. Scott has said that reversing this trend is a priority of his administration. His apparent plan to try to cancel the votes of Brattleboro residents, so he can prevent young adults from voting in local elections, is a strange choice given his stated goals.”

Evans-Frantz said Vermont is facing a major workforce shortage, and many Vermonters younger than 18 work and pay taxes.

“We should be supporting them to stay and contribute to our state,” Evans-Frantz wrote. “But they currently can’t even vote for who will represent their interests on the Select Board.”