Youth vote effort sees support and opposition

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BRATTLEBORO — During a public hearing this week, two teenagers got more of a taste of the political world they seek to enter via an initiative aimed at allowing them to vote at a younger age.

"I think it went well," Rio Daims, Youth Vote coordinator for Brattleboro Common Sense, said in an email after Tuesday's Select Board meeting. "I was actually glad to hear some people who opposed it. I like to hear new opinions."

A petition signed by 5 percent of the town's residents triggered a vote on whether to allow 16-and 17-year-olds the right to vote on local issues and serve on the Select Board and school boards. If voters approve an amendment to the town charter, then the Vermont Legislature will determine whether it can be changed.

The hearing was the first of two before the matter is brought to a town-wide vote in March. The next will be held Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Two residents spoke against the measure, saying the human brain does not fully develop until the age of 24 to 26.

"Our culture, since the late '60s, has clearly been moving in a direction of over empowerment and the idea of putting adult decision making in the hands of children seems to me out of balance," said Kit Barry, of Brattleboro.

"Then why are people already voting at the age of 18?" Daims asked. "Most 16-year-olds I know are just as intelligent as 18-year-olds who I know."

Pete "Nick" Nickerson, of Brattleboro, recalled publicly voicing his displeasure at the effort earlier.

"I found it obnoxious that un-self-sustaining individuals would have the right to vote on laws and taxes," he said. "It does not compute. They do not have perspective."

Scott Cooper, of Brattleboro, went through a list of activities and which age citizens are deemed fit for participation. People can work at the age of 16 then pay taxes on their income and can also decide whether to emancipate themselves from a parent as a custodian. Nationally, voting begins at 18. Drinking alcohol is allowed at 21. And cars cannot be rented in many states until 24.

"So it seems that society is very conflicted about what constitutes an adult and what does not," Cooper said. "Only hearing the various voices tonight I find that the most persuasive argument is no taxation without representation, which is one of the guiding principles of our republic."

Dale Joy, of Brattleboro, said she was an emancipated minor and would have loved to vote.

"What I saw in my elders was drug addiction, alcoholism," she said. "So I had more of a brain than some of my elders. In today's society, I think we might let them vote early, before their brains are deranged."

Gershom Moore, of Brattleboro, said he thinks it is important to listen to "what our kids have to say."

"To hear the fact that there's young people who want to speak up about things that are going on and are actually important to our town is a good thing," he said. "We just had a 14-year-old run for governor of our state. Why not give them a shot?"

James Shanti-Strother, Youth Vote assistant coordinator, said a few studies have shown that letting teenagers vote at the age of 16 will increase voter turnout and could potentially inspire their parents to vote.

"I also want to say 16-and 17-year-olds do pay taxes," he said. "Around like 80 percent of teenagers have already been paying taxes by the time they graduate high school. So they already are contributing to the town a lot and teenagers contribute billions of dollars each year."

Select Board member Shanta Lee Gander said she appreciates the initiative and suggested its coordinators try to incorporate civics lessons in their campaign so younger residents know about the processes.

"I actually think adults could benefit off of a return to civics classes," she said.

Daims said a lot of 16-and 17-year-olds told her they would try to educate themselves if they could vote.

"I know a lot of adults don't really educate themselves on current politics," she said. "And if people are started at a young age then they get involved in politics earlier on and the habit of voting is embedded earlier on and they vote for their whole lives."

Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School, said she works with young people and hopes adults can learn from their wisdom.

"Kids show up to school from dire circumstances every day so they should have rights to vote," she said. "My work with the youth tells me that we don't necessarily get smarter as we get older."

Daims said two towns in Maryland allow voting at the age of 16 and students in Oakland, Calif., can serve on the school board.

Bob Fisher, town attorney, said the town charter is an act of legislation and lawmakers are not bound to accept an amendment just because voters approve it.

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

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