Voting Young

voting

In most states, 17-year olds can legally drive, drop out of school, and have consensual sex with their peers. But nowhere in the United States can anyone under 18 walk into a voting booth and cast a ballot without breaking the law. Now, thanks to an 8-1 vote by their city council, some high school students in Massachusetts are one step closer to changing that.

It started two years ago when a group of politically active students at Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the nation's most diverse small cities and home to Harvard and MIT, began questioning the 18-year old minimum voting age most mindlessly assume is set in stone.

In the 1960s, when most people assumed the voting age of 21 to be unchangeable, students began asking the same questions. Their argument: if we are mature enough to be sent off to serve in Vietnam, aren't we mature enough to vote for (or against) those sending us there? In fact, Georgia and Kentucky, not exactly radical left wing states, had already lowered the voting age for their state elections to 18 during World War II. But amidst society's contempt and mockery, young people built a movement strong enough to make Congress realize the practicality of lowering the voting age. And in 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment was ratified, and the minimum voting age for national and state elections changed from 21 to 18.
In Cambridge, most Harvard and MIT students (nearly all over 18) can vote for members to the Cambridge school committee and in other municipal elections. But students one year younger who actually go to public high school in Cambridge can not vote to elect those making the decisions that affect them most."

In Cambridge, most Harvard and MIT students (nearly all over 18) can vote for members to the Cambridge school committee and in other municipal elections. But students one year younger who actually go to public high school in Cambridge can not vote to elect those making the decisions that affect them most.

So some Cambridge students are overcoming the vicious stereotype of the apathetic and immature teenager and organizing to gain the fundamental right of citizenship in a democracy: the right to vote. But convincing the Cambridge city council to vote almost unanimously this March 25th to lower the voting age even one year, has been far from easy.

A year ago the future of democracy in Cambridge was less promising than it is now. Last June, in a 6-3 vote, the city council rejected a proposal to lower Cambridge's voting age for local elections to 16, which would have given most students the opportunity to vote in at least one election while in high school.

The irony is, college students who are in the area get to vote on local issues that affect young residents, while "many 16 and 17 year olds are more familiar with local issues and candidates than their siblings who are off at college," pointed out City Counselor Henrietta Davis in a Boston Globe article last Fall.

The original group behind the effort, comprised mostly of white male students, did not come close to reflecting the diversity of Rindge and Latin, where many students are immigrants and nearly half live in public housing (Cambridge's wealthier residents tend to go to private schools). Fortunately, student organizations like the Black Student Union took a leading role in the coalition, which brought dozens of students to a city council hearing on the initiative, endorsed a slate of supportive city council candidates (five were elected) and lobbied the others.

"We brought together several student groups -- and momentum picked up at the last minute," said Paul Heintz, a Ridge and Latin senior who is one of the core organizers of the Campaign for a Democratic Future. In order to get council's support this year, the organizers compromised by agreeing to lower the age to 17, which would give fewer Cambridge high school students the opportunity to vote in at least one election. But the students also got support this year from council members like State Rep. Tim Toomey, who voted against the initiative last year.

The organizers will need support from Toomey's colleagues in the state legislature in order for the change to actually occur.
"Heinz believes that students able to vote in local elections would be more likely to vote than the notoriously low-turnout 18-24 voters."



In Massachusetts, like many other states, if a municipality passes legislation that conflicts with state law, they must file a home rule petition. Unless the Massachusetts House and Senate approve the Cambridge vote and the Governor signs it, 17-year olds won‚t be voting in Cambridge elections anytime soon. While realistic about the obstacles, Heintz still feels that "it definitely could happen." And if it does happen, students across Massachusetts and elsewhere could be encouraged to get their city councils to do the same. And maybe even a national movement for youth suffrage could emerge.

Maria Gonzalez, an organizer of the national youth rights activist group Oblivion thinks it will. She describes youth suffrage as "the most essential youth rights issue."

"A lot of young people are somewhat apathetic about politics, but that shouldn't be an obstacle that holds back passionate young people from voting, " Gonzalez continues.

But, for now, Heintz, Gonzalez and the other youth organizing around this issue are excited about what they have already accomplished. "Enfranchising people will be an impetus for them to get involved," he said. Heinz believes that students able to vote in local elections would be more likely to vote than the notoriously low-turnout 18-24 voters because such elections have a more direct impact on their lives. Whether or not the Massachusetts legislature votes to honor the Cambridge City Council's vote, the hard work of the Campaign for a Democratic Future has already sparked national interest in the possibility of lowering the voting age elsewhere-- at least local elections. Looking back on the last two years of the Cambridge effort, Heintz encourages students organizing for enfranchisement in their own communities to build coalitions that are truly inclusive. He reminds us to keep trying, despite our initial failures.

The mission statement of the Campaign for a Democratic Future has a message that is meaningful far outside the progressive college town known as the People's Republic of Cambridge. It reads: "Teens are one of the most regulated groups in the world. Because the law affects them so much, it makes sense for them to have a say in it. Lowering the voting age would give them the voice they deserve in their communities."

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