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Teen civics lesson

Student-led drive in Lowell may pull off a rare feat: actually lower the voting age

At Lowell’s United Teen Equality Center, backers of a push to lower the local voting age, Angel Suero, 16, and Dafny Rios, 17, do some social media work. At Lowell’s United Teen Equality Center, backers of a push to lower the local voting age, Angel Suero, 16, and Dafny Rios, 17, do some social media work. (Photos By Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Having just started her senior year at Lowell High School, Susan Le has decisions to make, such as whether she should run for class president or student council, and what she should major in once she enters college.

Her short-term goals may still bear question marks, but one long-term goal has already been determined.

“I do plan on running for School Committee in the future,’’ Le said.

Though she may seem like a 17-year-old political junkie, Le’s interest in civics was only recently sparked when she became involved in a teen-led initiative to lower the voting age for Lowell municipal elections from 18 to 17.

“Honestly, I’ve never been involved or interested in political events, or politics in general, except for the president,’’ Le said. “But once I started getting involved, my eyes were opened more. . . . I thought that whatever happened, I had to accept, and that just because I was a teen and a youth I couldn’t do anything; that I was just here taking up space.’’

It was that sense of powerlessness that led Le, along with other teens and leaders from the local youth organization United Teen Equality Center, to push for a referendum that would allow the city’s 17-year-olds to vote in the hopes of equipping more of Lowell’s youth with a feeling of political purpose. After a series of passionate arguments at City Council hearings last year, the teens persuaded councilors to petition the state Legislature to allow Lowell to lower its voting age for municipal elections, which would include City Council and School Committee races.

Sponsored by Lowell state Representative Kevin J. Murphy, the bill, which was filed in April, was passed in the Joint Committee on Election Laws last month, and now awaits a vote from the Legislature and the governor’s signature before it can be sent to Lowell voters for the final decision.

If proponents are successful, Lowell will be the only community in the country to give anyone under 18 political franchise, according to the Washington-based National Youth Rights Association, which tracks youth suffrage initiatives. First to benefit would be Lowell’s current 15-year-olds, who would be eligible to vote in the city’s next municipal elections in 2013. According to the 2010 Census, 2,652 of Lowell’s 106,519 residents were between the ages of 14 and 15.

But neither time nor a history of failed attempts is on the teens’ side. In order to be placed on the Nov. 2 municipal election ballot, the petition must be approved by the House and Senate, and signed by the governor by Oct. 3, said Gregg Croteau, executive director at United Teen Equality Center.

“That was the big step, to get it out of committee, and the goal is to get it out of the House and move it to the Senate floor,’’ Croteau said. “We’re cautiously optimistic about its chances.’’

Patrick Murphy, the Lowell city councilor who initiated the home-rule petition process last year, said that although he doesn’t favor lowering the voting age nationally or statewide, he supports it at the local level because it would give 17-year-olds the chance to have a say in matters that most directly affect them. Murphy said he can already see the benefits of this initiative in how it has energized the teens involved.

“That in and of itself has been a great benefit to the people working on it,’’ he said. “The engagement with the process has done what I hope this actual initiative would do for many more teens.’’

City Councilor Edward “Bud’’ Caulfield was the lone dissenting vote against the home-rule petition, not because he thinks 17 is too young to vote, but because of the potential slippery slope of going younger than that, and the possible confusion that could result statewide from some communities wanting to adopt the same initiative and not others.

“The voting age is 18 years of age across the country, and that’s the way it should remain,’’ Caulfield said, adding he is concerned that if given the right to vote, 17-year-olds also would have the right to run for office. “You could have a [high school] senior running for School Committee and have them be the boss of the superintendent of schools. . . . You wouldn’t believe how many phone calls I received from my constituents saying, ‘It’s ridiculous,’ and, ‘You did the right thing.’

“But I respect these teens. I saw more people there’’ at the home-rule petition hearings “than when we try to pass a budget.’’

James M. Xenakis, who at 20 became the youngest elected official in the state after winning a seat on the North Andover Board of Selectmen in 1999, said he would not be inclined to support a measure like Lowell’s Vote 17 campaign.

“Anything done like that needs to be done on a comprehensive level, not a city-by-city, town-by-town basis,’’ Xenakis said. “When I was 17 years old, I was involved in state, federal, and local politics as much as I could, but I didn’t feel slighted because I couldn’t vote. I understood the law was that you couldn’t vote until 18. . . . People under 18 can certainly influence the political process without having to vote, by getting involved in grass-roots efforts or communicating with elected officials.’’

Frank Talty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said he doesn’t see any legal or constitutional barriers to Lowell’s attempt to lower the voting age.

“In my opinion, if the 17-year-old vote were to pass in Lowell, then I think the 17-year-olds in Lowell should vote for all elections - local, state, and national,’’ Talty said. “The timing of this is interesting to me. The Vietnam War is what sparked the 18-year-old vote, but I don’t see what sparked this. It’ll require sustained effort.’’

Paul Green, a sociology professor at Salem State University, said Lowell’s initiative is positive, progressive, and might encourage young people to become politically involved.

“That’s what democracy is all about; it’s being involved,’’ Green said. “The basic issue is feeling empowered. If you feel that you have some power in the entire process, then you become more engaged.’’

Ever since putting City Council candidates on the spot about the issue in a 2009 candidates forum organized by the teen center, Le and her peers have obtained the support of numerous city officials and state delegates, and gone door-to-door educating potential voters on the issue. They even have their own downtown campaign headquarters on Central Street, where they not only work on Vote 17, but also on another pending bill that would make a civics course a high school graduation requirement by the 2014-2015 school year. That bill is spearheaded by Teens Leading the Way, a statewide coalition led by youths from several communities, including Lowell.

“The civics bill ties hand in hand with our bill. [Students] can learn more about the political process and the candidates,’’ Le said. “We feel that 17 isn’t too young, because when you’re 17, you’re still in school, you’re still in your community. Whereas when you’re 18, that’s a transitional stage in your life, going to college or the military. At 17, you have responsibilities: You can drive, pay taxes, go into the military. Why not have a say in your own community?’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

History shows it’s not an easy road

Attempts have been made in numerous states to lower the voting age to 16 or 17, and in some states to as low as 12 or 14, all unsuccessfully.

Closer to home, efforts in 1999 and 2001 to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections in Cambridge failed at the City Council level. Later initiatives that sought local youth suffrage for 17-year-olds were approved by the Cambridge City Council in 2002 and then again in 2006, but neither made it past Beacon Hill.

In 2007, students at Harwich High School initiated an unsuccessful campaign to lower the voting age statewide to 16.

Those involved in Lowell’s Vote 17 campaign are not discouraged by the failure of prior attempts in the state. They have added the extra step of a ballot referendum that would give Lowell voters, not state legislators, the final say, said Lowell City Councilor Patrick Murphy, who initiated the home rule petition process at the council level last year.

Thomas E. Patterson, professor of government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and author of “The Vanishing Voter,’’ said it is possible that past efforts to lower the voting age have failed because some in government are “always a bit leery about changing the rules. The rules work for them.’’

There also may be concerns that the impact of lowering the voting age could be most “upsetting of the apple cart’’ at the local level, Patterson said.

“It may have a bigger chance of creating a new dynamic at the local level, but I think that still would be quite rare,’’ Patterson said. “If we really wanted to turn the voting situation around in the United States, we would have 17-year-olds or even 16-year-olds voting. That would allow students who are still in school to get their first experience while they’re there, ideally with a polling place at the school.

“If you get them in once, for most people that does it,’’ he said. “The real challenge is to get them there at least once before they’re in their 20s, because then they become habitual nonvoters.’’

KATHELEEN CONTI