Lowell teens lobby for the 17-year-old vote

When it comes to ranking the interests of teenagers, political activism would presumably come low on the list, somewhere between heeding good advice and doing the laundry. But teens in Lowell are defying such thinking, as they campaign to lower the voting age from 18 to 17 in their city’s municipal elections.

The idea was hatched three years ago. In preparation for a teen-led public forum with city council candidates in 2009, high school students from Lowell’s United Teen Equality Center identified civic disengagement among the city’s youth as a critical issue. They felt that lowering the voting age to 17 would help address the problem. When they presented their idea to the 18 candidates, all but one agreed.

Carline Kirksey, 17, one of the leaders of the effort, says lowering the voting age makes sense. “When you’re 18, you’re going away to college or working full-time,” she says. “You’re starting your life away from home and have to vote by absentee ballot.” By contrast, 17 is a more grounded time in a teenager’s life, Kirksey says. And she says it’s an opportune time to learn about the voting process from parents and teachers, and get involved in local politics.

Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, says American 17-year-olds score roughly the same as 21-year-olds on questions of political knowledge. He says voting is a habitual behavior best learned young and thinks the Lowell school system’s strong civics curriculum makes the city an ideal location for experimenting with 17-year-old voting.

In Lowell, the United Teen Equality Center serves as an alternative to gang involvement, a place where youths can become involved in their community. More than 50 teens from the center have spearheaded the Vote 17 campaign, holding fundraisers, petitioning the State House, and knocking on more than 3,000 doors in the city. They claim that more than 60 percent of the residents they have talked to support their cause.

Going door to door, Corinne Plaisir, 17, found that many people were skeptical at first. “But when we explain it to them, they usually listen and realize that it makes sense,” she says.

Everyday citizens aren’t the only ones changing their minds. The Lowell Sun’s editorial board initially opposed the petition, but was persuaded to write an endorsement of Vote 17 after a meeting with campaign leaders.

As popular support for lowering the voting age has grown, so has political support. In late 2010, the Lowell City Council voted 7-1 in favor of drafting a home rule petition to send to the state Legislature, which would allow the city to lower the voting age if a citywide referendum on the issue passes. Last summer, the home rule petition was approved by the Joint Committee on Election Laws, but then got stuck, failing to clear the Legislature in time for Lowell’s November elections.

Secretary of State William Galvin’s office came out against the bill, arguing that lowering the voting age to 17 in Lowell would be inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution’s 18-year-old voting requirements and could lead to confusion, since separate voting lists would need to be maintained for municipal elections and state and federal contests.

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Lowell officials think their proposal is constitutional. City Solicitor Christine O’Connor, in a letter to the City Council, noted that the state Constitution specifically prohibits persons under the age of 18 from voting for state offices, but is silent on the question of municipal elections.

The teens are hoping their bill will clear the Leg­isla­ture in time for the referendum to be placed on the ballot in Lowell’s next municipal election in 2013. In response to concerns from state legislators, the teens say they are willing to add an amendment to their petition stating that 17-year-olds will not be allowed to run for office. They also hope to meet with officials in Galvin’s office to address his concerns.

For now, the teens make their presence felt every Wed­nesday at the State House, passing out copies of their bill to lawmakers. On March 13, the Lowell City Council voted 8-0 in favor of sending a resolution of support to the Legislature.