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Should 17-year-olds get the vote?

Referendum on November ballot sparks some controversy

BRATTLEBORO—When Vermont voters go to the polls on Nov. 2, they will be asked to amend the state’s Constitution to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 by Election Day.

Windham County Sen. Jeanette White is the sponsor of the measure, which was put on the 2010 ballot after the Legislature voted for it in the 2009 and 2010 sessions as required by the Vermont Constitution.

White, a Democrat from Putney, said the inspiration for the measure came from a group of interns in her office who were part of the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountain’s “Girls Rock The Capital” program. The program, which brings together young women and female lawmakers, gives participants training in public speaking, civics, advocacy and leadership.

“It was 2008 and the seniors that were in my office said they wished they had the chance to vote in the primary,” said White. “They did a little research and found out that 10 other states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries.”

In those states, White said there is no defined age for voting. The Vermont Constitution, however, is quite specific about what’s required.

It states: “Every person of the full age of eighteen years who is a citizen of the United States, having resided in this State for the period established by the General Assembly and who is of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and will take the following oath or affirmation, shall be entitled to all the privileges of a voter of this state: You solemnly swear (or affirm) that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.”

The oath, once known as the Freeman’s Oath, is now known as the Voter’s Oath and is unique to Vermont. But the logistics of 17-year-olds taking that oath is at the heart of some of the questions being raised by town clerks around the state about the amendment.

Town clerks wary

Alison Kaiser, a town clerk in Stowe and head of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ & Treasurers’ Association, wrote recently that her group’s membership has “concerns with the language as drafted and the process that has yet to be determined. The Vermont Constitution should not be amended with ambiguous language.”

Part of the ambiguity has to with what Kaiser believes is an inconsistency between the amendment and current law.

“Prior to registering to vote in Vermont, applicants are required to take the Voter’s Oath,” wrote Kaiser. “No determination has been made as to whether it is legal for someone under the age of 18 to take the Voter’s Oath. It is examples like this that need to be answered before asking the Clerks to implement a significant change to the eligibility of voter registration.”

White said the Voter’s Oath is no longer an issue, because the law was changed in 2007 to allow new voters to self-administer the oath, rather than have it administered by a town clerk or notary public.

“There are different things that that one can attest to that can be done by someone under age 18, such as courtroom testimony,” said White. “If we really and truly had a uniform age of majority — 18, and you’re an adult — this would be an issue. But we don’t. And our election laws are very detailed — so detailed that if we passed a law allowing 17-year-old to vote in primaries, it would be unconstitutional. So we have to change the constitution, before we can change the law.”

Kaiser questions the intentions of those who support the age change.

“Proponents of this amendment, while good intentioned, wish to capitalize on the enthusiasm of young voters to participate in local, state and national elections,” she wrote. “Voting enthusiasm exists because of issues, candidates and current circumstances, not by expanding the age of voting.”

White rejects that argument. “It should be easy to vote, and anything we can do to get young people to vote should be done. There is plenty of evidence that the first time someone votes sets a pattern for the rest of their lives. If they have a good experience, they will keep on voting and stay involved.”

Condos, Gibbs clash

The referendum has also become an issue in this year’s contest for Secretary of State.

Democrat Jim Condos supports the measure. “The foundation of our democracy begins with our voting,” Condos recently told Vermont Public Radio. ”This is about helping to educate our youth, and getting them involved at an early age.”

If elected, Condos said he would work to implement the new voting law.

Republican candidate Jason Gibbs disagrees. He said he believes the Legislature did a poor job drafting the measure and has done a poor job explaining its significance to voters.

“This is the last stop in the process,” Gibbs told VPR. “The people of Vermont are going to be asked to say, ‘Yea,’ or, ‘Nay.’ And I don’t think that we’ve adequately lived up to the expectation — in the Constitution  — for a significant discussion about amendments of this type. I frankly don’t think it’s significant enough to justify amending our state’s most important governing document.”

White said she is pleased that Condos supports the measure, and isn’t surprised that Gibbs opposes it.

“He’s also opposed to same-day registration and doesn’t like early voting,” White said. “He’s not trying to break down the barriers to voting, he’s trying to put them back up.”

In the end, White said, only a couple of hundred Vermont 17-year-olds would be affected by the change each election year. “But if there are kids in Vermont who want to vote, we should catch them now.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #71 (Wednesday, October 13, 2010).

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