Brattleboro rejects lower voting age, other progressive amendments

An amendment to lower Brattleboro’s voting age from 18 to 16 met a resounding “no” on Town Meeting Day, and it was one of a suite of amendments proposed by the progressive advocacy group Brattleboro Common Sense that were rejected by voters and the selectboard.

In response to what the advocacy group’s director, Kurt Daims, described as “Brattleboro’s low political morale,” the amendments focused on reforms that also included moving municipal elections to November, mandating paid time off for employees in Brattleboro to vote on Election Day, reinstating the town grand juror position, and establishing term limits of six years for Brattleboro selectboard members.

The amendments also included a strongly worded referendum that would have changed the way the town handled initiatives and ordinances, and would have given residents the chance to vote to overrule town spending that exceeded $2 million. Daims said that new referendum came in an attempt to reverse a 2012 amendment that dismantled the charter and limited the public’s power to decide what would be brought to vote.

“The new amendments,” he said, “would have made it perfectly clear, abundantly clear, redundantly clear that the government is not supposed to censor ideas if they don’t like them.”

None of the amendments passed. With a turnout of 1,109 voters out of a registered 7,546, the youth vote failed by a count of 390 in favor and 679 against.

The selectboard took positions against each of the amendments before the vote, with the exception of the lowering of the voting age, on which it could not reach consensus.

According to selectboard chair David Gartenstein, the board found that moving town elections to November would disrupt the link between Town Meeting Day and municipal elections.

The board also decided that mandating paid time off to vote would mean that Brattleboro employers would have to pay their employees for time spent voting in elections outside Brattleboro.

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They found term limits for the selectboard would be “undemocratic” and that the grand juror position to be “essentially obsolete.”

As for the referendum, the selectboard found it to be an unacceptable attempt to shift decision-making away from collective discussions and toward an Australian ballot.

“There was nothing to indicate that the 2012 charter changes had negatively impacted the ability to get items on the ballot,” Gartenstein said. “The new proposed changes would actually have muddied the waters and caused confusion rather than created effective change.”

Although the selectboard wasn’t unanimous in its position on lowering the voting age, Gartenstein said town attorney Robert Fisher warned that the amendment could be illegal because the U.S. Constitution and the state of Vermont set the voting age at 18. Other concerns included that people under 18 lacked the responsibility and worldliness to make informed decisions, and that they couldn’t enter into legally binding contracts, appear in court, and make other decisions without the consent of an adult, according to Gartenstein.

Daims pointed to an essay written by Brattleboro’s Benjamin Knapp, who was 18 when he advocated for the extension of suffrage to 16 year olds. The essay won the Brattleboro Reformer’s 2014 essay contest and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., linked to it on his website.

Daims also pointed out that many of the arguments used to oppose lowering the voting age could be applied equally to adults, including stances that teenagers are too influenced by their families, the media and advertising.

“It’s only fair,” Daims says of lowering the voting age. He points out that many 16 year olds have jobs and are subject to “taxation without representation.” In addition to fairness, he noted that studies have shown that when youths reach voting age, their parents and older friends start to vote more often as well.

Despite Brattleboro voters’ rejecting each of his group’s amendments, Daims said Brattleboro Common Sense saw an improvement in support over past efforts and says he hopes to build on that and continue pushing for election reform.

“It will be tough,” he said. “Brattleboro has this reputation for being progressive and forward-thinking and so forth. But the truth is that the progressive people don’t vote, and they especially don’t vote in March.”

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