‘Vote 17’ movement pushing for teen voice in local elections

In this age of voter apathy, a group of teenagers in one of Massachusetts' oldest Mill towns is fighting for the right to weigh-in on city business and cast ballots before they turn 18. The 'Vote 17' movement looks like a well-organized campaign, with office space in downtown Lowell where the teens involved spent Tuesday morning creating information packets and prepping for a trip to the state capitol -- where they're trying to get state lawmakers to support their cause.

Carline Kirksey just graduated from Lowell High School. She's heading off to college in the fall but remains passionate about ensuring the next generation of classmates will get a say when it comes to school and City Council elections.

"I feel like if we were able to vote at 17 we'd be able to create civic habits and increase engagement and increase voter turnout and increase youth voices in Lowell and a lot of the youth in Lowell are really engaged," said Kirksey from the organization's busy office. "We just come here every day and shoot emails to the representatives, senators and make sure we get to talk to them about why we want this to happen."

The right to vote at 17 years old in the Lowell municipal elections is not coming easy. The teens had to overcome concerns expressed by the Secretary of State's office about constitutionality that were ultimately addressed by creating a special ballot and keeping the teens off the general voting rolls. The initiative still has to be approved by the state legislature, passing through the House and Senate, before being signed by the governor. Then the measure goes before the voters in a citywide referendum in 2013. By then many of the teens involved will be 18 years old, but that's not slowing their efforts.

"It was kinda something that I could do to leave my positive footprint on for those that come after me," said Corinne Plaisir, a Lowell High graduate with plans to enter a pre-med program in the fall. "That's why I'm so passionate about doing this."

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"I think it's fair to say that 17-year-olds should be able to vote for School Committee. They go to school every single day. They're in school six hours a day and they do all of these things in school. Also, 17-year-olds are affected by things that City Council decides on, such as the bus schedule. The buses end at seven," said Plaisir. "That was something that I wanted to have a voice on and that was something I wanted to talk about."

State Senator Eileen Donoghue says she's inspired by the teenagers.

"For a number of years many of us bemoaned the fact that nobody comes out to vote, that there's a low voter turnout and there's apathy. So it was really refreshing to have young people saying 'let us vote,' and I thought their arguments were pretty persuasive," said Donoghue. "It would sow the seeds of voter participation at an early age and they really gave some great arguments why, once they go off to other places, college and what have you, sometimes they don't get back around to voting until many years later when maybe they have a family of their own and so, I thought they made excellent points."

State Rep. Kevin Murphy admits he was hesitant to support the teenager's goal at first but they won him over.

"I just think it's a great idea that youth get involved in politics and in community activities. The younger it happens, the longer they're going to stay in there," said Murphy.

While the efforts of the teenagers in Lowell are unusual, advocacy organizations have been actively battling to allow 17-year-olds more say in elections at the federal level for years.

FairVote, a Maryland-based advocacy organization focused on election reform and increasing voter eligibility, is calling for state and political parties to allow citizens who turn 18 by the general election to vote in corresponding primaries and caucuses.

According to FairVote, many states already allow 17-year-olds to participate, including: Alaska, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. In Alaska, Kansas, North Dakota and Washington, 17-year-old Democrats may caucus, but are barred from participating in the Republican caucus.

FairVote argues, "This patchwork policy creates confusion and can potentially disenfranchise eligible voters. Parties should act nationally to make this practice a norm."

"At a time when at an election 50 percent turnout is considered a near miracle, I think it's great that you have a group of young people wanting to participate in the Democratic process," said Prof. Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University.

"What this is, is a grass-roots movement and, like the Tea Party movement, the Occupy movement, we're seeing that around the country. It's just really interesting that now we see among young people this is really taking off like wildfire and I think, yes, there will eventually be demands at the state and federal level to lower the voting age," said Whalen.

"That's the whole idea of a grass-roots political movement -- that you're encouraging others to follow your example and who knows where this might lead? To quote President Kennedy 'the torch has been passed to another generation.'"