A new generation says it’s ready to step up

Now that 16- and 17-year-olds can vote — and run for office — in town elections in Brattleboro, they voice their concerns at a BUHS event

To save the democratic process, people need to become involved - and the earlier the better.

Brattleboro has become the first municipality in the state - and one of only a handful of cities and towns in the country - to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in local elections and, if elected, to serve on the Selectboard.

But as the high school students who filled an auditorium at Brattleboro Union High School heard on Feb. 12, the importance of their engagement goes deeper than that.

"It's not just so that we can say that x percentage of Vermonters voted," Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas told them. "It's so that we can say that every Vermonter knows how to petition their government to fix the problem that's too big for them to fix on their own."

Copeland Hanzas was joined by U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., and Brattleboro Town Clerk Hilary Francis in encouraging students to register and vote.

They also wanted to learn what the students, as first-time voters and future voters, are thinking about.

The students held nothing back.

They told the elected officials they are concerned about their safety on the streets, about the drug problem that has already taken several students, about services for people with autism, about artificial intelligence and deep fakes, and about other mental health issues.

Besides joining the Selectboard, young voters may also serve as representatives to the town's Representative Town Meeting.

The voting age was lowered because of a town charter amendment approved by the Vermont Legislature, which overrode a veto by Gov. Phil Scott. This is the first year it will take effect.

The three officials sat on the stairs leading to the stage and talked into hand mics; then they took questions from the approximately 125 students who attended.

Some of the students joined the conversation because participation allowed them to be excused from class. Some dribbled in, in groups. Some teachers brought their whole class. And some students came alone simply because they were interested in what the three leaders had to say.

Now that young people have the vote, the three officials said, it was time to learn how to get involved in politics.

"All three of us care so deeply about making sure that young people vote," Balint said. "I was in the Legislature along with Sarah when we first started working on this charter change for Brattleboro. And it didn't get locked in the first time, so we had to take another run at it."

She continued: "I don't want to get in the weeds as to why that was, but the most important thing for us was knowing that the sooner you get Americans interested in voting, the more likely they are to continue to vote."

Scott vetoed the legislation in 2022. The House voted to override the veto, but the Senate missed the two-thirds majority threshold, thus sustaining it.

Balint told the students that when she was their age, she already knew that she wanted to be in elected office.

"I knew that I wanted to help build policy to make life better for people," Balint said. "It just took me a long time to get there. Because I didn't know anyone in politics. I didn't have direct communication with anyone who represented me."

So, she continued, "if you feel in your heart that public service is something you're interested in, please take full advantage of the fact that you have not just a congresswoman here in Vermont that you can talk to, but I live right here in Brattleboro. I want to be a resource for young people who want to have a life in politics."

Copeland Hanzas told the students that before she was elected secretary of state, she served for 18 years in the House and was chair of the Government Operations Committee that "moved the charter change."

"It was my honor and my privilege," Copeland Hanzas said. "It was a really unique conversation to have, because it's unusual for a community to welcome 16- and 17-year-olds to vote."

She found it "really inspiring about Brattleboro asking for a charter change because it was student-led."

"I think it's important for your voices to be a part of this community and a part of the team of what Brattleboro does in the future," Copeland Hanzas said. "I want you to also get involved at the state level. And at the federal level."

Francis explained that the deadline had passed for being on the ballot for this year's election, but students can definitely begin write-in campaigns. A pamphlet outlining the ways to participate can be obtained from the Municipal Center, she said.

"If you become a Town Meeting representative, you get to vote on your town officers, the moderator, the listers, and the list goes on," Francis said. "And then you also get to vote on things like the town budget. You get to vote on appointing different people to serve on different committees, as well as what citizen petitions there are."

She pointed out that "if somebody was interested in voting on something that the Selectboard didn't want to put on the ballot, citizens could go around and get petitions and put that on the ballot."

Vermonters love Town Meetings, whether they are Representative Town Meetings - like Brattleboro's, which is unique in the state - or Zoom meetings or all-day events, Francis said.

"We love Town Meetings because we love the idea of getting into a debate," Francis said. "That's where democracy happens. Being able to amend an article, amend the budget up or down - this is important to us. And those are the types of things that happen at Representative Town Meeting."

Most of Vermont's Town Meetings are held the first Tuesday in March. Brattleboro's Representative Town Meeting will take place on Saturday, March 23.

Right now, there are empty seats where representatives should be.

"We always need more Town Meeting members," Francis said. "The Brattleboro charter requires that if you want to be a write-in candidate, you simply have to contact my office before the close of polls on Election Day and declare that you want to be a write-in candidate. You need a minimum of 10 votes. So if you encourage your peers to register, it should be pretty easy to get those 10 votes."

Engagement is everything

Balint said her job is to be "the eyes and ears for Vermonters in Congress."

Her main concerns have been housing, mental health, reproductive rights, workforce development, citizen engagement, and how to bring people to the polls. But she said that she has been hearing from her constituents at every level and in every part of the state that "people are exhausted."

People are tired from the pandemic. And they are tired of what came after the pandemic.

"They are tired of the partisanship," Balint said. "They turn on cable news and get people screaming at each other. People are tired of being shoved into one algorithm or another and feeling like they don't understand a broad perspective."

This makes communication difficult, she said.

"This is a challenge because we know only a small percentage of Americans right now are watching the news," she said. "A small percentage are engaging with newspapers of any kind."

And a "huge swath of the electorate is only getting their news from TikTok and YouTube," Balint said.

"And how do we have meaningful, substantive conversations around voting and around engagement when the traditional platforms of how you engage voters have changed dramatically in the last five years?" she asked.

A huge percentage of the electorate is older now and still reads newspapers and direct mail political advertising. Younger people do not share those media choices.

"There is no one medium that you can use right now to engage voters that will hit all the different groups of people," Balint said.

The scariest thing is that a lot of people have just checked out, she said.

"I don't blame them," she said. "I know how bad it is, because I am in the middle of those sometimes really dysfunctional screaming fits in Congress."

But, she continued, "I also know that if we disengage, we become much more cynical and hopeless and despairing. Then we lose our creativity and our capacity to solve problems. And I'm really interested in solving problems."

Continuing on the topic of engagement, Copeland Hanzas shared a much-quoted political aphorism: "If you aren't at the table, you're probably on the menu."

"Let that sink in for a minute," she said. "Maybe you're concerned about climate change; maybe you're concerned about gun violence, or substance abuse. These are all issues that you should be engaging on with your peers and then engaging with candidates for elected office. Ask them what their beliefs are, what their action plan is, what they are going to do about it."

Substance abuse concerns

One of the students' first questions concerned the terrible toll that drugs are taking in Brattleboro.

"I taught in four different public schools in Vermont before I was in politics," Balint said. "The number of former students that I've talked to who have lost friends or family members is soul-crushing. The human toll in this state is absolutely devastating. And I know Brattleboro has been really hard hit."

Balint said the problem was so overwhelming that she worried if Vermonters weren't losing their compassion and becoming inured to suffering.

"We have to make the connection between education and housing in particular," she said. "We have to make sure we increase the [number] of people who are able to do drug counseling and mental health counseling."

She called those measures "some of the most important work that we can do for your generation."

"And we're going to have to move a lot of different levels of levers to make progress here," said Balint, adding that congressional caucuses are studying the problem, especially in rural states like Vermont.

"We need to get more providers who are able to prescribe methadone and buprenorphine, two methods for people to get into treatment," Balint said. "And we have to continue to work on the stigma of talking about it openly."

People sometimes have to go through several rounds of treatment "to get on the other side," she said.

"That's not a moral failing. That's not a personal failing," she said. "There are drug companies that have made a tremendous amount of money off of opioid addiction. This keeps me up at night. But we need more federal resources on this front."

Copeland Hanzas, who also taught school before she ran for office, said she signed up to teach science at a local substance abuse facility once she got into the Legislature because she wanted to stay connected to young people.

"I would go in every Monday, work on science lessons with the students who were there in treatments, and then Tuesday through Friday, I'd go to the Legislature," she said. "But so many times, from one week to the next, I would come in to find a completely different group of young people in front of me."

Kicking substance use is difficult, she said.

"These are extremely powerful chemicals that communicate with your brain in a way that makes it really hard to turn off," she said. "And one week is not enough time for a young person to make their way through addiction and into recovery."

For some of these young people, insurance will pay for only two weeks of treatment.

"It is very disheartening, the extent to which the science of addiction and recovery has not yet been able to communicate with the people who write the budgets and the policymakers who set the policies on how we're going to fund these," Copeland Hanzas said.

"And, to me, this is one of the biggest issues that we need to solve together," she continued. "Because if you are suffering from substance use disorder, you don't have the ability to fix that by yourself. This is not a bootstrap kind of a problem."

Mental health issues - including loneliness and connection, and their connection to substance use - are concerns for Vermont's entire congressional delegation, which includes U.S. senators Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch, Balint said.

"All three of us talk about mental health and connection, and a crisis of loneliness and how it relates to substance use disorder," Balint said. "We need to give people the opportunity to get reconnected within their communities."

Balint said that people serve in the public sector "because we care deeply about our communities and about our constituents."

"And we need to gather collectively to think about how to solve this problem," she said.

Other concerns

One student asked if there were things happening around autism awareness at the state or federal level.

"I really, really appreciate that question," Balint said. "One of my own children is on the autism spectrum. And it is incredibly important to me that all of the work that we do to connect young people involves folks who are neurodiverse. It has to be part of the work that we do."

Francis said that her office was working on ways to communicate clearly so that information is available to people with all kinds of brains, including for people on the spectrum as well as for people for whom English is a second language.

Another student asked about what can be done about misinformation coming from social media and what might happen with artificial intelligence and "deep fakes" - still images, video,and audio representations of people doing or saying things they have never actually done or said.

Conversely, the possibility of such technology also gives unscrupulous politicians cover to dismiss the legitimacy of actual news.

"A session we did in Congress last week on deep fakes discussed how much potential there is in AI, but in terms of politics, how many scary aspects of artificial intelligence there are," Balint said.

"And I'm going to be really honest with you," she continued. "We're playing whack-a-mole right now."

The capabilities and malicious potential of today's software have exceeded "what Congress really imagined, even just a few years ago," Balint said. "And so we're playing catch-up."

The good news, she said, is that Congress is aware of the power and dangers of AI.

"And we understand that this is work that we can't do without Big Tech, working with us and not fighting us on these issues," Balint said. "So that is some of the work that I'm doing in the House Judiciary Committee as we try to take on some of the worst actors in terms of social media companies that know that they are spewing misinformation and disinformation, allowing it to go around the world before you know the truth."

Balint said that students have told her that they know they are being manipulated by technology companies, whose social media algorithms are engineered to keep them engaged.

"They said, 'We know we're addicted to the dopamine rush.'" Balint said. "'We know we're staying on our phones many more hours than we should. We try to put them away, but we can't. Our parents tell us to put them away, but we see our parents just as addicted as we are. And that's the reality of what we are dealing with."

The next presidential election can be easily manipulated by bad actors using this kind of advanced technology, Copeland Hanzas said.

"I just got back from Washington, D.C., where we had a gathering of the National Association of Secretaries of State," Copeland Hanzas said. "Most of us oversee elections in some way or another. And one of the big concerns comes after having watched the 2016 election."

She established that "foreign governments were using the algorithms of our social media to drive disinformation about political candidates in order to divide us into factions."

People divided into factions come to distrust other people.

"And what happens when we are divided?" Copeland Hanzas said.

"It becomes easier to take power over a divided group of people. So many of these foreign actors, many of these people who are using AI and are creating these 'deep fakes,' are doing this because they want to tell you that you shouldn't trust that person over there. That person is different. That person is 'The Other.' You shouldn't trust them.

"We are falling into it by using social media and getting into that dopamine hit of staying on too long," she said.

One female student told Balint that she does not feel safe at night on the streets of Brattleboro. Balint brought Francis into the discussion.

Later, The Commons asked Francis what actions they had suggested.

"There were conversations about whether she had been to any of the Selectboard meetings, to voice her concerns," Francis said.

"The Selectboard is constantly hearing voices from both sides. Some people believe there should be more security and more police," she continued. "Other people feel that more police is not the answer, and that it would make them feel unsafe."

The Selectboard members, she explained, "also hear both sides regularly about putting security cameras downtown. So I think that for the Selectboard, hearing safety concerns from our high school students is very important."

After the conference, a voter registration drive in the lobby yielded 38 new voters. Approximately 15 or 16 of them came under the new charter resolution.

A few days later, The Commons asked Balint to sum up the conference.

"Speaking to high school students in my hometown of Brattleboro gives me hope," Balint said. "These students are excited to engage in the political process and have their voices heard as young voters. I'm encouraged by their openness to dialogue about youth mental health and their eagerness to implement real change for their futures."

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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