House overrides veto of Brattleboro charter change

Bill would lower voting age for municipal elections; Senate expected to override

The Vermont House on March 11 narrowly overrode Gov. Phil Scott's veto of H.361, a measure that allows Brattleboro to amend its charter so that 16- and 17-years-olds can vote in local elections.

The chamber's 99-member coalition of Democrats and Progressives was joined by one Republican and two Independents to pass the measure by a vote of 102-47. One hundred votes are necessary to meet the two-thirds threshold required to override a gubernatorial veto in the House.

Municipal charter changes must get the approval of Montpelier before being enacted. Brattleboro's residents voted by a 2-1 margin on Town Meeting Day in 2019 to lower the voting age.

Scott has criticized the measure on the grounds that lawmakers are trying to have it both ways, lowering the bar to be considered an adult in the context of the ballot box but raising it when it comes to criminal prosecutions.

House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, echoed these arguments on the House floor, telling her colleagues they were sending “a series of mixed signals when it comes to young Vermonters.”

If the measure passes, she said, a 16-year-old in Brattleboro would be able to vote at Town Meeting, but would have to wait two years before playing the lottery or joining the military, six years before purchasing alcohol and tobacco, and seven years before they were considered an adult in certain criminal proceedings.

“There is no consistency. Rather, there exists a patchwork of unclear and confusing contradictions,” she said.

But Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, one of the bill's sponsors, countered that 16- and 17-year-olds are already accepting major responsibilities and contributing to civic life - without a meaningful voice. They can drive, work, and even pay income taxes, she said.

Kornheiser also said that research shows that “voting is habitual,” and argued that the best way to develop a habit is to start early. Allowing young adults to vote, she said, will also make civics education more impactful because it will be more immediately relevant to students' everyday lives. And she said letting younger people vote might also have a “trickle-up effect on civic participation” on the older people in their lives.

“Parents, family members, community members become engaged in civic life often through the 16- and 17-year-olds in their households,” she said. “If we must and want to retain our youth in our communities, we need to create the conditions of belonging and trust.”

The bill now heads back to the Senate, which is also expected to override. It is on the Senate Calendar for Wednesday, March 16.

Twenty votes are needed to override a veto in the upper chamber, and the bill initially passed the Senate with 20 votes - and one Democrat/Progressive absent, likely giving leadership an extra one-vote margin of error.

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