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Council approves teen voting ordinance

Proposal would need support of reluctant legislature to become law

Adam Reilly

The Boston City Council last week voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in municipal elections, but the prospects of the proposed change becoming reality remain murky.

The 9-to-4 vote sends a home-rule petition that would implement expanded eligibility to Mayor Michelle Wu. If she signs it, it will then go to the state Legislature, which has chosen not to support similar proposals from several other Massachusetts communities.

If the Legislature breaks from that pattern and backs Boston’s proposal, it will also need to be approved by the governor — in all likelihood, current Governor-elect Maura Healey — in order to take effect.

Before the vote, At-Large Councilor Julia Mejia acknowledged the long road ahead but vowed to push hard for the measure’s ultimate passage on Beacon Hill.

“We know what happens at the State House — most things go there to die,” said Mejia, who was one of the proposal’s architects.

“I believe this is an opportunity for us to organize other municipalities across the state and create the groundswell [of] support that this initiative deserves, and that is led by young people,” Mejia added. “So once it gets there, just let the State House know that we’re coming for them too.”

District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok, who co-sponsored the measure with Mejia, said that while many 18-year-olds are living through big transitions as they become eligible to vote, most 16-year-olds are still closely tied to the communities where they grew up.

“If we give our young folks the chance to start forming that voting habit when they’re 16, 17, when they’re still rooted in the communities they’ve lived in their whole life, they’re able to have these arguments in their high school hallways,” Bok said. “I think that that’s actually how you build that civic habit that really leads to lifelong civic engagement.”

Bok added that, while living in the United Kingdom, she’d witnessed the effects of expanded youth voting firsthand.

“I actually lived in the U.K. when the Scottish [independence] referendum happened and they let 16- and 17-year-olds vote, and it was an amazing civic participation reality there,” Bok said. “They saw really high turnout amongst young people, and they saw them … really engaging in the conversation in a new way, because they knew they had a say.”

Councilors Frank Baker, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn and Erin Murphy voted against the proposal. While none of them spoke Wednesday, Murphy suggested at a hearing earlier this year that 16- and 17-year-olds lack the maturity necessary to vote responsibly and could be susceptible to inappropriate pressure from adults.

“I’ve lived through raising three teenagers,” Murphy said at the time. “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.”

The push to extend the vote to younger teenagers has gained steam in recent years, nationally and internationally, as well as here in Massachusetts.

In March 2021, 125 members of the U.S. House backed an amendment filed by U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a former Boston city councilor, that would have lowered the federal voting age to 16.

In a floor speech in support of her proposal, Pressley said teens are already active in a host of high-profile social movements, and added: “16- and 17-year-olds, constituents of mine, are supporting their families. They are working not for enrichment or to build a resume but because they have no choice. They are attending school full time and taking care of loved ones in the midst of the COVID crisis … yet they are deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

According to the National Youth Rights Association, six municipalities across the country have lowered their voting age to 16 for some or all local elections, including Takoma Park, Maryland, and Berkeley, California. The group also says that more than a dozen states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the general election.

Another advocacy group, Vote16USA, said that as of 2020, about two dozen different countries allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local, state or national elections, including Scotland, Austria and Argentina.

If the franchise is expanded in Boston, where turnout for city elections is often disappointingly low, more progressive candidates seem likely to benefit.

Before the 2022 midterm elections, a poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that voters ages 18 to 29 strongly preferred Democratic congressional candidates to Republicans. A majority of the group believed that both their rights and the rights of others are under attack, and many cited abortion, climate change and gun control as their most important issues.

The federal voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 by the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1971.

Adam Reilly is a reporter at GBH-TV’s Greater Boston.