A national movement to grant more teens the right to vote scored its first victory this week with the passage of legislation in Takoma Park, to lower the voting age in municipal elections to 16. But momentum continued Wednesday as advocates in Massachusetts spoke at the State House in favor of allowing 17-year-olds to vote.
Activists have made a number of attempts across the country in recent years to grant more teens access to the polls. They point to the change in Takoma Park as a potential springboard for movements elsewhere.
“This is, in legislation terms, the first real big step,” said Jeffrey Nadel, president of the D.C.-based National Youth Rights Association, which lobbied for the legislation in Takoma Park. “We’re excited that this will be the spark that lights the fuse for change across the country.”
The measure, passed Monday by the Takoma Park City Council, required local lawmakers to amend the city’s charter and included a number of initiatives, such as a provision that allows same-day voter registration and another that restores the rights of felons who have completed their sentences to vote in local elections. Council members said the legislation was meant to engage more of the city’s approximately 17,000 residents in elections.
“The progressive politics of our community led us to take these steps,” said Takoma Park Council member Seth Grimes, one of the initial sponsors of the legislation. “What I have seen here in Takoma Park is a large number of informed, engaged teenagers.”
The city has long been known for embracing liberal initiatives, allowing non-U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections and declaring itself a “nuclear-free zone.”
Though Takoma Park teenagers are the first to successfully lower the voting age, a cast of equally civic-minded teenagers from Lowell, Mass., was busy Wednesday lobbying for the same right.
About 60 teenagers in blue T-shirts crowded the Massachusetts State House in Boston for a hearing before the Joint Committee on Election Laws in support of a bill that would allow the city of Lowell to decide whether to lower the voting age to 17. The teens received support last year, but the bill was sidelined and a final vote was not taken, said Geoff Foster, a staff member at the United Teen Equality Center, which is supporting teenage voting activists.
Corinne Plasir, who was among those lobbying legislators as part of the initial effort and who returned to the State House again Wednesday, said lowering the voting age can create a lifelong pattern of civic engagement.
“If you catch them at that age, you can start the habit of voting,” said Ms. Plasir, who cast her first ballot in the November general election after turning 18 last year.
Those lobbying from Lowell were excited to hear of the success of their peers in Takoma Park.
“We thought it was victory for voting-age issues,” Ms. Plasir said. “Unfortunately, our process is a lot longer than theirs.”
Though the voting-age movement has centered on small, municipal elections, Mr. Nadel said, there is no reason why the movement couldn’t catch on at a state level if activists had the legislative support.
“It’s our understanding that a state can lower its voting age for all elections,” he said.
Those who seek to lower the voting age could face a tough battle, often fraught with misconceptions, Mr. Nadel said.
“Opposition that we have seen is rooted in a fear of the unknown people’s deeply entrenched preconceived notions,” he said.
Whether they believe 16- and 17-year-olds are not mature enough to cast ballots or may simply vote the way their parents tell them to, Mr. Nadel said, many opponents with whom he has spoken are quick to change their minds after meeting teenagers involved in lobbying efforts.