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Lowell voter age measure stymied

Secretary of state rules petition is unconstitutional

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service / September 30, 2011

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Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office dealt a blow this week to efforts by Lowell teenagers to lower the voting age for city elections to 17, issuing a ruling that deemed the petition unconstitutional.

The finding by Galvin’s office, which contradicts opinions by the Lowell city solicitor and a Harvard law scholar, closed the door on the teenagers’ hope to bring the question of lowering the voting age to the city’s ballot this November, according to a top House lawmaker.

The home rule petition would have to clear the House and Senate by Monday and be signed into law by the governor to qualify for the November ballot.

“We want to work with the secretary’s office to fully understand the concerns,’’ said Gregg Croteau, director of the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, who was behind the petition drive. “We’ve reached out and want to find out how to move forward.’’

Croteau said he hopes city voters have a chance to settle the issue in two years.

“Obviously there was this intermediary goal, but we understand legislation takes time, so if it doesn’t happen now, we’re absolutely motivated to get it on the ballot for 2013,’’ Croteau said.

In a letter Monday to House counsel James Kennedy, Assistant Secretary of State and legislative director Michael Maresco wrote that the home rule petition pending in the House ran counter to Massachusetts general laws that require voters to be at least 18 years old and not under guardianship or incarcerated.

“Accordingly, it is our opinion that this home rule petition is inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution,’’ Maresco wrote.

The bill, filed by Representative Kevin Murphy, Democrat of Lowell, and backed by the entire Lowell delegation, has won an initial vote of approval in the House and was referred to the Committee on Bills in the Third Reading.

Representative Vincent Pedone, chairman of the Committee on Third Reading, said yesterday that Galvin’s ruling gave him pause about advancing the bill further in the House until the larger legal questions are resolved.

“Given the controversy that surrounds this, moving the bill through the legislative process quickly only to find out in the future that it is unconstitutional would not be prudent,’’ Pedone said.

“We will continue to try to get more information on the bill, but I find it difficult to believe we will be able to resolve all the issues that exist before the Oct. 3 deadline.’’

Pedone said he was also concerned that the bill might inadvertently set a precedent for allowing 17-year-olds to run for public office, given that most city and town charters allow registered voters to run for elected office.

“Maybe we should have a larger discussion about 17-year-olds voting in municipal elections, instead of doing it town by town, city by city,’’ Pedone said.

The Lowell City Council approved the home rule petition in December 2010 after City Solicitor Christine O’Conner issued a ruling that the state Constitution and General Laws applied only to state elections, not to municipal elections.