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electionlineWeekly — March 12, 2015

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I. In Focus This Week

Let them vote
Move is on to allow more 16- and 17-year olds vote in local elections

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Not too many folks can say they were “the first” in their industry to do something, but Jessie Carpenter, clerk for Takoma Park, Maryland can wear that label with pride.

In 2013, the City of Takoma Park — a Washington, D.C. suburb — gave 16- and 17-year olds the right to vote in local elections and Carpenter was there to conduct the first election.

Since then, Takoma Park has been joined by Hyattsville, Maryland in allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote, and legislators in San Francisco, Lowell, Massachusetts and the state of Missouri are also considering lowering the voting age.

Back in Takoma Park, Carpenter said the transition was pretty seamless.

Because Maryland allows 16- and 17-year olds to pre-register, when Prince George’s County provides the city with the most updated voter rolls in advance of the election, the county simply includes the pre-registered 16- and 17-year olds on the eligible list and Carpenter goes from there.

In the first election where they were eligible, 59 of the 134 registered 16- and 17-year olds — or 44 percent — turned out to vote.

“Overall voter turnout — for all ages — was just over 10 percent,” Carpenter said. “So you can see that the young people definitely came out in force.”

Carpenter said the young voters who participated seemed genuinely proud to have been able to vote in their hometown.

And Takoma Park hasn’t stopped there. While Marylanders may pre-register to vote beginning at 16, in Takoma Park, voters may begin pre-registering at 15.

“Once our city council enacted the revisions to our City Charter to extend the vote to the younger voters, we promoted the opportunity to vote,” Carpenter said. “We also allowed 15-year olds to register using a city voter registration form so that we could remind them to transition to registration with the State when they became eligible.”

Earlier this year Hyattsville, Maryland became the second municipality not only in the country, but also in Maryland to lower the voting age for local elections to 16.

The city’s first election with the new, lower voting age will be this spring. Hyattsville Clerk Laura Reams doesn’t anticipate the coming election to procedurally be any different from past elections.

“Since the pre-registered 16- and 17-year old voters will be incorporated into the city's voter rolls, the polling location procedures will be the same for all voters,” Reams said.

Although she has no idea what turnout will be like for this group, so far, she said, reaction to the lower voting age has been positive.

“The city has primarily received very positive feedback on this legislation. The city had a great turn out for the public hearing on lowering the voting age - approximately 80 people, with standing room only in the city's council chambers - and the comments were overwhelmingly in favor of lowering the voting age for City Elections,” Reams said.

Reams said the city’s board of supervisors of elections has done outreach to the local high schools and is hoping to work with the schools in hosting a voter registration drive before the election.

Both Reams and Carpenter said there have been no added costs to their offices under the new voting age requirements.

Much has been written about Millennial turnout — roughly 21 percent in 2014 — but studies have shown that the earlier people get involved in the process the more likely they are to remain engaged in the process.

That’s why organizations like The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and FairVote, support lowering the voting age at the local level.

Perhaps engaging the generation that follows the Millennials — the jury is still out on what to call them — early on will increase participation later in life.

Carpenter isn’t sure if there has been an increase in 16- and 17-year olds registering to vote, but she said that is something her office will be tracking as they ramp up for the next election when they can vote, which is later this year.

“Not everyone in Takoma Park supported reducing the voting age,” Carpenter said. “I think that as time goes by and other communities reduce the voting age, it will become normal. What we would like to know is whether the early voting experience helps make lifelong voters of these teens.”

One unforeseen wrinkle has come though. Following the decision to lower the voting age, the Hyattsville officials did clarify the rules about minimum age to serve as mayor on the council. Although 16- and 17-year olds can vote for those seats, they can’t serve in them until they are 18.

The lower voting age movement has met some resistance.

Recently, residents of Brattleboro, Vermont voted down a measure that would have lowered the town’s voting to 16. While voter turnout was only about 14 percent, the measure failed by an almost 2-1 margin.

The town selectboard was divided on the age amendment — there were several other voting amendments on the recent ballot — but David Gartenstein, selectboard chairman told a local paper that the town’s attorney had expressed concerns over the legality of the amendment.

And as we mentioned, cities and towns are the only ones considering lowering the voting either. At least one piece of legislation is pending at the state level.

In Missouri, Rep. Karla May (D-084) has introduced HJR16 that proposes a constitutional amendment allowing residents of the state who are over the age of 16 to vote. The bill has been read a second time, but no hearings are scheduled and it is not currently on the House calendar.