Brattleboro youth voting charter change passes Senate
Rio Daims argues the case for allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections to the Brattleboro Selectboard in 2018.

Brattleboro youth voting charter change passes Senate

Spokesperson signals that governor will veto the legislation to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections

After recent spirited debate, the state Senate gave preliminary approval to a Brattleboro charter change that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections.

That change also would allow youth voters to run and serve as town meeting representatives and on the Selectboard. The vote was 20–9.

At times, the debate on the virtual Senate floor on Feb. 11 offered glimpses of senators as parents.

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, a parent to a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old, said, “I can tell you that they are ready to vote, and they are ready to participate in government, and their analysis and engagement at this age is absolutely incredible.” She said she hoped other Vermont towns would take up similar measures.

However, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, was not so sure.

His own children are now adults, he said, but the thought of them as teenagers voting on his local property taxes was “very concerning.”

Benning also flagged what he saw as a potential inconsistency.

“Our judiciary committee has bent over backwards trying to disentangle youth who are 19 and below from an adult criminal system,” Benning said, referring to the Raise the Age initiative. Those who support prosecuting young adults in the juvenile system often argue that ongoing brain development through early adulthood impacts decision-making.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who both presented the charter change bill and works alongside Benning on Senate Judiciary, argued there is a distinct difference between the parts of the brain that handle “cool cognition,” or slower decision-making, and impulsive behavior.

The debate may be moot, as a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott signaled Scott would likely veto the measure.

“The governor believes that consistency from municipality to municipality on voter eligibility is important and that the age of eligibility to vote should remain 18 statewide (and 17 in primary elections if the voter will be 18 by election day),” spokesperson Jason Maulucci wrote in an emailed statement Friday afternoon.

Even if the measure passed, it would affect a relatively small slice of the population, noted Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden.

“I love the specter of the youth of Brattleboro assembling and carrying out some unbelievable overthrow of their local government through the ballot process. This would be a wonderful crisis for us, to have youth understand their power in our democracy,” Pearson said.

“And I would assert that there are not that many youth in Brattleboro aged 16 and 17 so as to steamroll the more seasoned voters of the community,” he added.

Pearson noted that local elections generally have low voter turnout anyway.

In 2019 - the year Brattleboro voters overwhelmingly approved this charter change 908–408 - voter turnout hovered below 20 percent in all districts. Last year's town meeting drew similar participation.

Even so, the recent debate got at some of the core questions of democracy - namely, who should have a say.

“As exciting as this proposal may sound, it is deeply concerning when we disconnect any requirement that they are taxpayers in a town, and yet have control over taxpayers in the town,” Benning said. He argued this proposal flipped the rallying cry, “no taxation without representation.”

Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, pushed back, arguing that property ownership shouldn't be a factor in who makes local decisions.

Ram Hinsdale joined the Legislature “as a 22-year-old renter,” she said, “and my community had faith in me that I could execute on behalf of them, faithfully and dutifully, my responsibilities as a member of the House.”

Rio Daims was 16 when they organized other Brattleboro residents to support this charter change, and is now a 20-year-old college student studying politics in Washington, D.C. Daims said they were “very excited” to hear about the Senate's vote.

Daims said sustainability is their top political issue, and cited impacts from climate change as a reason younger people should be able to vote.

“All the 16- and 17-year-olds are going to be faced with a very tumultuous future,” they said. “And they should have a little bit of a voice, at least, in protecting their own futures.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates