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Boston to weigh teenagers voting in local elections

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News

Boston City Council is set to weigh legislation that, if approved, would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections for mayor, City Council and city-specific ballot questions.

The measure comes before the council as the issue of lowered voting age gains national steam, mostly through the efforts of progressive Democrats. The Council, which has become increasingly left-leaning in recent years, is likely to pass the measure this week. But even if the Council passes the measure, it has to also be approved at higher levels of government before taking effect.

Back Bay Councilor Kenzie Bok is one of the local measure’s six co-sponsors. She said the proposal is meant to expand suffrage and address voter apathy. At 18, many young adults uproot their lives and move to unfamiliar communities. Allowing them to vote earlier, she said, could encourage them to become more civically engaged.

“It would be really great for civic education for young people to have the first chance to vote in the community that they’ve grown up in, surrounded by their peers and being able to have arguments in high school classrooms,” Bok continued.

The measure, which is scheduled to come up at Wednesday’s Council meeting, would need approval first from the council, then the mayor, then from the state Legislature.

Several Massachusetts municipalities have attempted to lower the voting age for local elections in the past. All of those efforts failed. Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Harwich, Lowell and Northhampton have each been thwarted at the state level.

At least two Boston city councilors, Frank Baker and Erin Murphy of Dorchester, said ahead of Wednesday’s meeting they do not support lowering the voting age in local elections.

“I am against voting under 18,” Baker said via text message Monday. Baker was not available for further comment.

At a hearing back in March, councilors who support the measure pointed to the other ways that young people already participate in civic life.

At-large Councilor Julia Mejia, who orchestrated bringing the proposal before the council this year, pointed to the legal working age and a generally professed desire among elected officials to get more young people active in their communities.

“What we know is that young people are already working and paying taxes, they’re in schools with very little representation and voice, and I think it’s important to start creating opportunities for them to be civically engaged,” Mejia said.

Asked about the other municipalities that have unsuccessfully attempted to expand the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, Mejia said times are changing.

“What we’re seeing more and more is that young people have been leading movements,” she said, pointing to widespread Black Lives Matter protests. Mejia also noted that the student representative on Boston’s unelected school committee is not a voting member.

“We are denying young people an opportunity to be actively engaged in their own lives and everyday we’re making decisions that impact them. … So, I’m ecouraging those who have not supported this initiative in the past to recognize that this is an opportunity to right the wrong and create space for young people to speak for themselves.”

Still, Murphy, another at-large councilor, said 16 years old is too young for voting.

“I worry as a parent. I’ve lived through raising three teenagers. They have a lot to offer. I think they’re full of wisdom and have lots of ideas and thoughts, but I also think that they’re very impressionable,” she said, nothing that students might experience pressure from teachers or lobbying groups attempting to sway their votes.

“For me, personally, I would like to see us getting our eligible voters, 18 and older, engaged in voting,” Murphy continued, pointing to Boston’s generally low voter turnout. “I would put more energy and efforts into finding out why they’re not coming to the polls.”

Murphy also pointed out: “I have never heard from any 16- or 17-year-old directly. … I am hearing from voting rights advocates who are adults, but I’m never hearing directly from children who say they want it.”

Nationally, young voters have been turning out at historically high rates in recent elections and the move to lower the voting age has gained high-profile allies, mostly among progressive Democrats who stand to benefit from expanded suffrage.

The Tufts University-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE, reported this month that even though people ages 18 to 29 who can vote tend to identify less with political parties than other age brackets, young adults who do select a party tend to affiliate with Democrats.

In 2015, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed the idea of extending suffrage to teenagers.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley has also twice introduced a measure to lower the voting age in federal elections to 16 years old.

In July, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced a Youth Voting Rights Act bill alongside Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia. The legislation would, among other things, require colleges and universities to have on-campus polling places, compel states to accept student IDs to meet voter identification requirements and allow young people in all states to pre-register to vote before turning 18.

According to the youth advocacy nonprofit National Youth Rights Organization, a handful of cities — Berkeley and Oakland in California, and Greenbelt, Hyattsville, and Takoma Park in Maryland — have lowered their voting age to 16 in school board and other local elections.

The organization also reports more than a dozen states, including Connecticut and Vermont, allow 17-year-olds to vote in presidential and congressional primaries so long as they turn 18 before general elections.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.

boston city council, municipal elections, voting, voting age