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.