Youth Vote stall disappoints backers

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BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Legislature's decision on whether to expand the voting rights of 16- and 17-year olds in town will not be made this year.

"I think that this is a very unfortunate delay," said Rio Daims, Youth Vote coordinator for Brattleboro Common Sense and Brattleboro Union High School student. "I believe that letting youth have a voice is an urgent issue. We are a huge part of this society and denying us the right of a voice in this government, while continuing to accept our taxes and work, is something that should not continue any longer. But nevertheless, we are forced to wait another year."

A bill had been introduced by Brattleboro state representatives Mollie Burke, Emilie Kornheiser and Tristan Toleno on March 21. But Vermont Public Radio reported that Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Orange-2, chairwoman of the House Committee on Government Operations, confirmed Monday that the legislation would not get a vote this year.

"I am very disappointed that the Youth Vote has not moved yet," Burke said. "But I hope we can work on this next year. I think a couple of things happened. One is that there was a charter change proposal from Montpelier to allow legal non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. That took some time, along with a variety of other charter change proposals. Then the committee worked on the marijuana legalization bill, though that will not make it this session."

Burke said Copeland-Hanzas told her a majority of members in the House Committee on Government Operations are in favor of the Youth Vote bill.

"So hopefully we can pass it early next session," said Burke.

"I am disappointed that the House Government Operations Committee did not have time to take it up," Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said of the Youth Vote. "It is not the usual charter change and had a fair amount of controversy so it took a bit more time than many charter changes. But they did not vote against it so it will be taken up in January and we may be able to get it out before Town Meeting. We will work hard on it when we get back."

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Brattleboro residents approved Article 2 on March 5 in a 908-408 vote, sending the Youth Vote to the Vermont Legislature to decide whether the town charter should be amended to allow anyone 16 or older to vote on local issues and serve as a Town Meeting representative or as a member of the Brattleboro Town School Board and Brattleboro Union High School #6 Board. The amendment might allow up to two "youth members" to serve simultaneously on each school board, however, an ordered merger of school districts is set to see those boards dissolve June 30.

"Under Dillon's Rule, the town's charter is actually controlled by the state," Town Manager Peter Elwell said. "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."

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.

Daims had hoped to have that vote in November but a mix-up with information provided by the town around deadlines for public hearings needed beforehand caused it to happen in March. At a Select Board meeting in August, she expressed concern that lawmakers would not have enough time to look at the charter change.

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

Brattleboro Common Sense celebrated the electoral "victory" in March nonetheless, describing the initiative as one that will empower younger residents.

"We as youth feel that we deserve a voice in local government because we are active members of this town and we are fully affected by town issues and policies," the group wrote on its website. "We drive cars, have jobs, pay taxes, and we have a big impact on movements all around the globe. We should have an impact at the polls."

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


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