Testimony to the Joint Committee on Election Laws

To: Honorable Chairpersons Senator Anne Gobi and Representative John Mahoney, Joint Committee on Election Laws

From: Aaron Nelson and Max Carr, Co-Founders of Vote16 Hilltowns
Testimony in Support of H.3838 (Shelburne), H.3861 (Wendell), H.3872
(Ashfield) – Acts authorizing persons sixteen years of age or older to vote in
town elections in the towns of Shelburne, Wendell and Ashfield.

Honorable Chairpersons and members of the Committee,

As the students and residents of Ashfield and Shelburne who presented the petitions to lower the voting age at our Town Meetings, we urge you to report these bills out of committee. These acts would lower the voting ages in the respective towns to 16. These bills, which were passed nearly unanimously at town meeting in Ashfield and Shelburne, and by a majority in Wendell, will help spur renewed attention to civic education in their schools, instill a habit of voting in their youth, and invigorate engagement with our local governments and communities. In this era of lackluster voter turnout and rising partisanship it is more important than ever to give teens the tools they need to effect change and create engaged and responsible citizens. To further this, we co-founded Vote16 Hilltowns, a grassroots network looking to introduce this idea in other towns and cities in Western MA.

Under these bills, teens would gain the right to vote in local elections, but our towns would gain
something even more valuable; engaged citizens and regular voters. Research from Denmark
demonstrates that voting is habitual, and that the first few votes a person casts are critical to establishing that habit. Yet the Center for Civic Information and Research on Civic Learning and
Engagement(CIRCLE) at Tufts University estimates that less than 15% of Massachusetts 18-21 year olds voted in the 2014 midterms. In 2012, only half did, more than 20 points below the turnout of those over 30. This early period is the most critical in forming a habit of voting, yet most of Massachusetts’s newest voters simply aren't voting. This leads to short and sometimes long-term disengagement with our electoral system, part of the reason that the US and Massachusetts turnout rate lags behind most other advanced

This trend intensifies in local government, where in our few years of attending town meetings, we were one of, perhaps, two people under 25 in the room. This not only further disrupts teens voting habits, but disengages them from local government, where voter apathy is already pronounced. Given these trends, we should do everything we can to help of our citizens form a habit of voting they can carry into adulthood.

To help establish that habit, we support lowering the municipal voting age to 16, a change with numerous benefits. First of course, is that having teens cast their first votes before voting is complicated by their transition into college or the workforce will help form an enduring habit of voting. In the more stable circumstances of high school, their communities, schools and families can help them cement that habit, not only for midterm or state elections, but local as well. Importantly the bills will also help teens carry these habits beyond high school by allowing teens to register for local elections through the existing pre-registering process, eliminating one of the biggest hurdles to their later participation in state and federal races.

Beyond increasing youth turnout, introducing teens into the local electorate will reinvigorate civics education as high schools will be called on to supply these new voters with the knowledge and tools they need to participate in local government. In fact, after our petitions were passed this year, the high school that serves Ashfield and Shelburne introduced a civics class for the fall semester. If these bills pass, they will create a new learning environment in this class. Instead of simply learning about citizenship, teens will be able to practice it, putting the tools and values from their civics courses to use in local government. Doing so will create a new vitality in local government, as teens arrive with fresh ideas and energy, volunteering for a commission they are passionate about, or introducing a petition to address a problem they see in their community.

To be clear, lowering the local voting age in our town, or even across the will not completely fix our electoral system. Larger structural reform is undoubtedly needed and many measures, including same-day and automatic voter registration, would also boost youth turnout. But lowering the municipal voting age will do more than simply boost turnout, it will help create understanding and engagement with our system of government. Fundamentally, it will give our teens the tools, knowledge and the opportunity they need to navigate and value our democracy, something we hope that our communities can model for others across the Commonwealth.

Though we fully support the content of the bills, we do recommend an amendment. In order to give time to the local schools, government and teens to prepare for this change if it passes, as well as to confirm the wishes of the towns, we ask that the committee add the following amendment to the end of each bill.

This bill will take effect 90 days after its ratification by town meeting or ballot vote of the town, at the town’s discretion.

We thank the committee for your consideration and hope you will favorably report these bills out of committee with our suggested amendment.

-Aaron Nelson and Max Carr, Co-founders of Vote16 Hilltowns