Lily Charkey and Emilie Kornheiser

Lily Charkey, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School and intern for Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (right), visited the Statehouse last month in support of the Youth Vote.

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MONTPELIER — Younger community members of Brattleboro are going to have to wait to participate in local elections after the Senate failed to override the governor’s veto.

“Over the last three weeks, I’ve worked hard to find a path forward on the Brattleboro charter change to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections and run for local office,” Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, of Brattleboro said Thursday in a statement following the Senate vote. “Unfortunately, since we originally voted on the bill, several of my colleagues have raised concerns about 16- and 17-year-olds serving on select boards because they are not allowed to sign contracts by Vermont law. There is concern that the work of selectboards with youth members would be vulnerable to legal challenges and about the precedent set by approving the Brattleboro change.”

Fifteen senators voted in favor of overriding the veto and 12 voted against it, however, a two-thirds majority was needed.

Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the bill on Feb. 28, the day before annual Town Meeting Day in Vermont, citing concerns about how the charter change would further contribute to a patchwork of age requirements in laws. As an example, he noted that the Legislature bumped the age for accountability for criminal offenses to 22.

Last month, the House of Representatives voted 102 to 47 to override the veto. One-hundred votes were needed before the matter moved on to the Senate.

Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said he’s “frustrated” by the Senate’s vote on Thursday.

“While maybe it is legitimate about the contract signing, I don’t know why it wasn’t raised earlier in the process so it could have been addressed timely so we aren’t aren’t forced back into a years-long slog for the Brattleboro residents to actually see their democratically voted charter change enacted,” he said. “I really hope that when our representatives voted for this the first time around, they really believed in it and it wasn’t really because they believed it would be vetoed.”

Goodnow said he plans to learn about what steps can be taken on the initiative “because I still really believe in the vote and I also believe in the substance of the charter change.”

“Brattleboro should have the right to change its charter to allow for youth engagement in the way that it’s spelled out,” he said.

Select Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said she’s sorry the Senate couldn’t bring itself to override the veto after months and months of discussion. She noted the charter change was overwhelmingly supported in Brattleboro.

Residents approved the amendment that would lower the voting age in a 908-408 vote in March 2019. The Youth Vote initiative came from Brattleboro Common Sense, a group focused on promoting democracy and other progressive issues.

Rio Daims, youth coordinator for Youth Vote while a student at Brattleboro Union High School and is now in college, said it is a shame that the Senate failed to override the governor’s veto.

“This is a clear disregard of the will of the people, as Brattleboro voters are the same who would be exclusively affected by the implementation of the Youth Vote,” Daims said. “Moving forward, Brattleboro Common Sense wants to extend support to other municipalities who are interested in starting their own campaigns, as well as those across the state who expressed interest in our original campaign of 2014.”

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Tim Wessel, who serves on the Brattleboro Select Board and is running for Vermont Senate, went to the Statehouse on Thursday and watched the vote. He called concerns about the legality of 16- and 17-year-olds signing contracts “reasonable.”

“It’s kind of a weird situation but it could be a very sticky legal problem,” he said. “The tricky part is they probably could have tried to fix that part of it and gone forward with the override but that’s a different thing than the voters voted on. So is it the responsibility of the Legislature to assume the voters would still be OK and still would have voted for it if they knew there was a legal problem?”

Wessel said it’s best for the decision to come back to the town if people want to petition for another vote. He noted Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, offered to work out the kinks.

“But that could take a while,” said Wessel, who isn’t personally in favor of the initiative but respected the will of the voters.

Despite the disappointment, Daims said, “I am happy to say that Sen. Jeanette White has now voiced her intent to sponsor the bill again in the next legislative session, and we are confident in its future success.”

“It is interesting that the governor’s concerns for uniform election laws was not the concern of the senators who changed their votes,” said Kurt Daims, executive director of Brattleboro Common Sense and Rio’s father. “During the campaign of 2014-2015 we interviewed high school students and found that they didn’t care so much about the Select Board as they did about the school board. We decided on a two-stage campaign and included the [Representative Town Meeting] and school board provisions in the 2019 campaign. That had to be taken back out because of conflicts with Act 46, which consolidated the school boards.

“We are confident of Senator White’s sponsorship in the 2023 legislative session,” Kurt Daims said. “The revised legislation will include membership on school boards, which is consistent with the version that Mr. Scott supported in 2020.”

Balint said she remains “inspired” by the proposed town charter change and what it could mean for getting younger people engaged in democracy during “a critical time.”

“While I’m disappointed, I’m hopeful,” she said. “In 2018, Montpelier passed a charter to allow all residents to vote in local elections regardless of citizenship status. It took several sessions — but it passed the legislature in 2021, along with a similar charter from Winooski.”

Balint said when big changes to the status quo are sought, “it often takes time and persistence to change people’s view of what is possible.”

“While I won’t be in the state Legislature next year, I’m confident that Windham County legislators will continue to champion this issue,” she said, as she seeks to take the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, of Brattleboro, said she’s “disappointed a few senators couldn’t find their way to uphold the will of Brattleboro voters.”

“I know,” she said, Balint and White “worked hard, and I (and my colleagues and district mates) remain inspired by this charter change and what it could mean for getting young people engaged in our democracy and community. We will introduce the charter change next biennium and continue to champion this issue on behalf of the youth of Brattleboro.”