Youth vote effort sees support and opposition

Maia McNeill gets Kayli and Lisa Nicholson, of Brattleboro, to sign a petition in 2018 to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in a election. 

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BRATTLEBORO — A bill empowering 16- to 18-year-olds with voting rights in Brattleboro passed 103 to 33 in the House of Representatives.

H.386 would amend the town charter to allow “youth voters” to vote for local offices, and serve as members of Representative Town Meeting and the Select Board.

“I’m really excited for the youth of Brattleboro,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, of Brattleboro. “The more we can do to make youth feel welcome in our community and feel they can participate and engage in civil service and politics, the better off I think we all are.”

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

Last March, the Senate failed to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a similar bill. At the time, senators raised concerns about youth serving on select boards because they aren’t allowed to sign contracts by state law.

Kornheiser said the House learned that since Select Board members sign contracts as a body and not as individuals, “it was actually never a problem. It was just something some people thought was a problem. Then we got enough information.”

Scott had shared concerns last year 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 February, 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, where it failed.

Jason Maulucci, press secretary for the governor, said Scott has not changed his position since last year.

Kurt Daims, executive director of Brattleboro Common Sense, expressed a desire to work with the governor to iron out issues on statewide uniformity. He had met with Scott in 2020 about the project.

“There have been ups and downs,” Daims said of the initiative. “It took a year for Brattleboro Common Sense to arrange an essay contest and presentation to the high school for the first campaign in 2015.”

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Daims recounted having “legal hassles” with the Select Board that prevented the local vote from occurring in 2018. He said he wishes the bill included youth membership on the Windham Southeast School District Board. Currently, the School Board has youth members who act in an advisory capacity with no voting power.

"I think it’s about time that the Youth Vote efforts actually come to fruition," said Rio Daims, who served as a coordinator for the initiative while in high school and is the adult child of Kurt Daims. "Let’s hope it follows through this time. It should have been the first time around, given that the voters of Brattleboro showed overwhelming support in the initial vote."

Rio Daims also expressed disappointment about School Board seats missing from the list of potential positions for youth, adding that "students deserve a say in their education."

Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Windham-6, told the Reformer he felt inspired to speak on the House floor Wednesday in support of the bill even though he doesn’t represent Brattleboro.

“In response to those who think the youth aren’t ready for this responsibility, I say, let Brattleboro try it,” he said. “Within safe and principled bounds, experimentation at a local level with democracy is fundamental to the United States. We live in a challenging world and we need as many individuals from as many walks of life to participate as possible.”

Roberts said he congratulates the youth of Brattleboro who he hopes will become more enfranchised by the bill.

A student from Brattleboro Union High School and a recent BUHS graduate testified in a subcommittee along with Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow.

“I showed Brattleboro overwhelmingly supported this and that the Brattleboro voters wanted this,” Goodnow said. “I believe that there are a lot of important decisions being made on the local level in our town and that those decisions impact our youth, and that 16- and 17-year-olds have a right and responsibility to be part of making those decisions, and also that the Legislature has a responsibility to do what they can to retain as many of our younger Vermonters as possible.”

Goodnow said he hopes “the bill passes in the Senate and becomes a reality for our town.”

Charter changes are not subject to changeover deadlines in the Legislature.

“So hypothetically, the Senate could act on it this year,” Kornheiser said.