City Council Moves To Lower Voting Age

Pending state approval, measure would enfranchise 17-year-olds

As dozens of students with yellow buttons bearing the slogan “expand democracy” crowded into City Hall on Monday night, the Cambridge City Council passed a measure that would extend voting rights to 17-year-olds in municipal elections.

By an 8-1 vote, the council approved a petition to the state legislature asking for permission to lower the voting age for city council and school committee elections. If the petition is granted, Cambridge would become the first city in the country to enfranchise people under the age of 18.

The vote came after recent efforts by the Campaign for a Democratic Future, a group of high school students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) who have been pushing to lower the voting age for several years.

“I feel that we as teens are more informed than college students who have come in from Wyoming or London or wherever to go to Harvard or MIT,” said George A. Krebs, a CRLS student.

Last summer, during the council’s previous term, the same measure to give 17-year-olds the vote was rejected by a close 5-4 split. But with the election last fall of councillors E. Denise Simmons and Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87—both councillors supported by members of the Campaign for a Democratic Future—the measure gained two of its staunchest supporters.

Monday night, Mayor Michael A. Sullivan and Councillor Timothy J. Toomey swung their votes in favor of the petition. Both had opposed the measure last June and, up until the last minute, supporters of a lower voting age had said they were unsure how the two councillors would vote.

After lengthy student testimony Monday night, students applauded and cheered as each of the eight councillors stated their reasons for supporting the petition—led by the petition’s sponsor, Councillor Henrietta Davis.

When 18-year-olds leave Cambridge to attend school or find work elsewhere, they lose touch with their home town, but they also fail to connect with their new communities—and therefore do not vote in either place, Davis said.

Lowering the voting age would get young people in the habit of voting even before they leave the city, Davis said, and a 17-year-old franchise could help solve larger problems of low turnout and general voter apathy.

“It’s kind of the like the opposite of smoking,” she said. “[Voting] is a habit we want them to get into.”

Student voting activity would encourage parents to become more aware of city politics and vote in city elections, said Simmons, who had advocated the measure last year as a member of the Cambridge School Committee.

She also said allowing 17-year-olds to vote would give more minority residents a voice in local politics by enfranchising the children of immigrants who are ineligible to vote.

Councillor David P. Maher, the sole member of the council to vote against the measure, cited his belief that the city council was not the “right forum” for youth to seek voting rights and his concern that young people would be “placed in a political battleground” as his reasons for opposing the measure.

But students who supported the measure expressed interest in being targeted by elected officials and candidates.

“Any councillor against decreasing the voting age is running away from getting to know the youth in this city,” said CRLS senior class president Edward McKlain before the council.

The state legislature will have to approve the Cambridge petition, because voting eligibility rules such as the voting age in local elections fall under its powers. Both student activists and councillors said they were unsure how or when the legislature would respond. But no one said they foresaw a smooth ride ahead.

“You certainly have your job cut out for you at the State House and with the governor,” said Toomey, who is also a state representative.

Rep. Jarrett T. Barrios ’90-’91 (D-Cambridge) and Rep. Alice K. Wolf (D-Cambridge) have both indicated their support for approving the petition at the state level.

Cambridge already has another petition on voting eligibility currently pending with the state legislature, which would allow immigrants to vote in school committee elections. Several councillors had previously expressed concern that a petition to lower the voting age would distract from the immigrant voting petition, but Monday night councillors said a second petition would reinforce the importance of voting rights issues in Cambridge.

The 17-year-old voting age proposal scaled back an initial proposal from the Campaign for a Democratic Future to extend voting rights also to 16-year-olds. Last summer, when the proposal to reduce voting age came before the council, it had been amended to include only 17-year-olds. Still, the amended measure had failed at that time.

Monday night some student activists said they still favor granting voting rights to 16-year-olds, and Councillor Marjorie C. Decker said she supported a further reduction in voting age.

“I do agree that there is no difference between 16 and 17,” Decker told students disappointed at the council’s passage of a less radical measure. “Part of the lesson you learn is that it’s politics.”

Students said Monday night’s vote marked the first victory in their ongoing campaign to give students a greater voice in local politics. They plan to continue agitating for a reduction in the voting age to 16.

And in the meantime, the students said, they plan to begin lobbying the state Senate to approve the city’s petition for a 17 year voting age because they feel the Senate would be more receptive than the House, said Paul H. Heintz, a CRLS student and co-chair of Campaign for a Democratic Future.

They also plan to start pushing for a measure that would allow student members of the school committee, who are elected by their peers at CRLS, to vote along with the committee’s seven regular members, said Emma Lang, a student school committee member.

Many students at CRLS on Monday afternoon said they were unaware of the measure but most said they generally support it.

“It’s a good idea that our voices can get heard and it can count for something,” said Ann Hung.

But not all CRLS students said they agreed.

“I think there’s a difference between high school and college,” said Benjamin M. McArthur, who acknowledged that he was in the minority among his classmates in opposing the measure. “Living on your own can change the way you think.”

The measure came into Monday night’s council meeting with the endorsement of the school committee, which voted 5-2 last Tuesday to support the petition.

Two committee members—Alice L. Turkel and Alfred B. Fantini—testified before the council in support of enfranchising 17-year-olds. They joined Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D’Alessandro and the acting principal of CRLS, Len Solo, in supporting the measure.

“I think our high school students are much more thoughtful and aware of their government—more than most people,” D’Alessandro said. “They read the paper. They watch the news. I’m very proud of our students’ efforts.”

—Staff writer Stephanie M. Skier can be reached at skier@fas.harvard.edu.