Early voting throws curveball at 'youth vote'

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BRATTLEBORO — Due to confusion about deadlines, a charter change giving 16- and 17-year-old residents the right to vote on local issues and participate on school boards or as a Town Meeting member will not be on the November ballot after all.

"We weren't factoring in the early voting," Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor said Friday during a special meeting. "That's what happened. That's the crux of it. We admit mistakes were made and we apologize to all of you."

The special meeting was scheduled for Friday so the board could get the question to voters during the general election. Friday was a deadline for getting November ballot language to the Vermont Secretary of State's Office.

To get on that ballot, O'Connor said all the verified signatures would have needed to be submitted to the town clerk by July 20. And Town Attorney Bob Fisher said there would have needed to be two public hearings before Sept. 21.

"If we started a month or so earlier, we could probably do that," he said.

Rio Daims, youth vote coordinator at Brattleboro Common Sense, and other initiative organizers collected signatures during and after the primary election on Aug. 14. They handed in 455 valid signatures altogether before Tuesday's meeting, where Daims told board members about getting conflicting information about deadlines three times.

"The reason we had so much confusion is because we rushed," Town Manager Peter Elwell said. "We kept trying to accommodate a very short timeline and we made mistakes in that process."

The plan now is to have it on the ballot for March 5, annual Town Meeting Day in Vermont. There will be public hearings at the regular board meeting at 6:15 p.m. Oct. 2 and the same time during a special board meeting Oct. 9. If voters support the charter amendment, the Vermont Legislature also will need to approve it.

Board members apologized for the confusion.

"We are now experts at how to do this," said O'Connor.

She said state law requires the scheduling of a public hearing no later than 30 days of submitting verified signatures for a petitioned ballot item. A second hearing needs to follow within 10 days of the first. The meetings need to be warned 30 days before they are held.

The first hearing could have been held Sept. 24. But, "the added glitch is early voting," O'Connor said. "It starts Sept. 21, which means having the public hearing on Sept. 24 doesn't work."

Board members Shanta Lee Gander and David Schoales wanted to see a document created to make the timeline more clear for future petitioners.

"Yes," Elwell said. "We will do that."

He also encouraged residents to approach town staff early for information.

Daims, 16, questioned whether getting another petition in could trigger a special town meeting to hold a vote sooner. But in Fisher's reading of the law, only the Select Board could schedule a special town meeting to vote. He said an item brought forth by petition with signatures from 5 percent of the town's legal voters could be presented at the next primary or general election or at the annual Town Meeting.

"So that doesn't preclude you from making another board charter amendment proposal," he told the Select Board, "but then you would be potentially in conflict with one another."

Both situations, he said, would require at least two public hearings and put the vote out past November.

Daims worried whether lawmakers would have time next legislative session to look at the charter change.

"I heard that it takes a long time to get on the agenda for the Legislature," she told the board. "And if we waited until March, it might never even get on their agenda until 2020."

Board Vice Chairwoman Brandie Starr commended Daims on her work and gave her some marketing tips.

"People are creatures of habit," Starr said. "If you can't get on the November ballot, you want to get on the March vote because that's when people are planning to vote."

She suggested publicizing the public hearings from now until October, then doing a "social media push" starting in January.

Gander thanked Daims for getting younger residents involved in the local process.

"They may not have the right to vote now," she said, "but they're going to be our future politicians and different movers and shakers."

Board member Tim Wessel added, "I'm really jazzed to see this democratic process we have before us.

"We are in the midst of many issues we're dealing with. These things don't come around often so we make mistakes," he said. "We've stepped up to be volunteers in these positions and we want everyone to know, we are citizens and we support democracy."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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