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Youth in Cambridge Win Battle over Vote

Council Supports Voting Rights at Age 17

By Keith J. Winstein


The Cambridge City Council will petition the Massachusetts legislature to lower the voting age to 17 in city elections.

An 18-month campaign by students at Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin high school to lobby the council culminated in an 8-1 vote at the council’s meeting on March 25. Passage of the motion followed three previous unsuccessful attempts to lower the city’s voting age in the past three years.

The effect of the petition is both to grant permission to the legislature to enact a special law pertaining only to Cambridge and to request its passage. It is known as a “home rule petition” in reference to Massachusetts’ constitutional scheme preventing the legislature from intervening in local matters without such a petition.

Seventeen-year-old Cambridge residents would be eligible to vote for City Council and School Committee and on local ballot questions if the legislature enacts the petition, which would make Cambridge the first American municipality to allow citizens younger than the age of 18 to vote.

Student lobbying swayed Council

The successful lobbying campaign was organized by 17-year-old Rindge and Latin seniors Jesse Baer and Paul Heintz, co-chairmen of a group of 15 students who worked to lobby the council since October 2000.

In June 2001, the Council voted 3-6 against the group’s request to petition to lower the voting age to 16, and 4-5 against a compromise petition setting the age at 17. The council had narrowly declined to petition for a 16-year-old minimum age by a vote of 4-4 in February 1999, before the high-school group became involved.

But this time, the students’ lobbying paid off. Councillors Marjorie Decker, Timothy Toomey and Michael Sullivan, who had voted against the petitions in 2001, changed their votes, leaving only Councillor David Maher against the measure.

“Some of the switches seemed pretty mysterious to us,” Baer said.

Toomey, who also represents parts of Cambridge in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, had told the Associated Press before the June 2001 vote, “I just don’t believe that a 16-year-old or 17-year-old has had enough life experience to be prepared to vote.”

Now, Heintz said, Toomey is one of the group’s biggest supporters. The group will be working with Toomey starting next week to lobby the legislature, Heintz said.

Curtis Gans, Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said the council’s vote was “crazy.”

“When you are obligated as you are at 18 for certain citizenship responsibilities, like perhaps going to war, you’re old enough to vote ... on the policies that may lead us to that war, but people at 17 do not have the maturity and judgment that are needed to make wise citizen choices,” he said.

“All [lowering the voting age] is going to do is further reduce voter turnout,” Gans added. “The age group with the most significant decline in voter turnout in America is 18-year-olds.”

Gans said that “an estimated eight percent” of 18-year-olds voted in 1998. “You want to get it down to six percent, maybe you can do it,” he said.

Chance of passage unclear

The legislation requested by the Council will be “very difficult to pass,” said Christian Scorzoni, an aide to State Senator Robert E. Travaglini, whose district includes MIT. “I’d say the chances of it passing are close to slim to none.”

Although Travaglini thinks “the merits are good to involve more people in” the voting process, Scorzoni said, passing such legislation is “a long uphill process that I don’t think it will gain much steam up here.”

“Being cautiously optimistic, it may pass,” said Matt Irish, chief of staff for State Senator Steven A. Tolman, who also represents parts of Cambridge and Boston.

Irish noted that many legislators have a policy of always voting for home rule petitions. However, he said, the legislative process is long, and the legislature is likely to be occupied with the commonwealth’s budget for the rest of its session. If the petition is not enacted by the end of the legislature’s formal session on July 31, “it would have to be refiled” by the council.

A previous council petition to allow Cambridge residents intending to become United States citizens to vote in school committee elections has languished in the Massachusetts House of Representatives since its submission in January 2001.

Students discuss voting benefits

Student organizers said that the intent of their efforts was to allow high-school seniors to vote at least once before leaving town for college.

“I think there’s a real chance to get people hooked on voting at a young age,” Baer said. “Voting is habit-forming.”

Many local issues directly concern high-school students, Heintz said, such as the “restructuring of the high school, school choice in the elementary schools” and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) examination slated to become a high-school graduation requirement.

Baer added the location of Cambridge’s libraries and funding for after-school programs and bike lanes to the list of local issues important to high-schoolers.

Affected MIT students were generally unenthusiastic about the idea of voting in city elections at the age of 17.

Eric T. Syu ’04 was 17 during last November’s election, but said he “probably would not have” voted in the election even if he could have. “That’s a function of the fact that I only was in Cambridge a year by then, so I didn’t know what anyone’s position was,” Syu said.

Xin J. Sin ’05 also said he wouldn’t have voted last November had he been eligible at 17.

Only Vincent S.H. Yeung ’05, who is 15, expressed enthusiasm with the Council’s vote, saying he plans to vote at 17 if he is eligible.

Of MIT’s 1,033 current freshmen, 128 were not yet 18 by last November’s election, said Assistant Registrar Iria J. Romano.