Miles Anton: Brattleboro's shift on vote for 16-year-olds

Editor's note: This commentary is by Miles Anton, of Brattleboro, who is a high school student, writer and filmmaker.

[O]n March 5, the town of Brattleboro held its annual town vote, where propositions went to the citizens, for a direct vote. One of the measures that passed was Article 2, brought forward by the political activism organization, Brattleboro Common Sense. The article would expand local voting rights to citizens ages 16 and up. It would also lower candidacy age to 16 for the Brattleboro Union High School school board and Brattleboro Town School Board.

Brattleboro Common Sense movement is led by youth in the area, including BUHS student, Rio Daims. The key argument proposed by her and other activists in support of youth voting is that our current requirements are anti-democratic. On the BCS website, this argument is clearly presented, “We as youth feel that we deserve a voice in local government because we are active members of this town and we are fully affected by town issues and policies. We drive cars, have jobs, pay taxes, and we have a big impact on movements all around the globe. We should have an impact at the polls.”

The clear counter argument to the Youth Vote movement faces is that lowering the voting age would enfranchise teenagers who are not intellectually ready to understand policy. This argument is more built on a theoretical foundation than in fact, as shown through the evidence. A 2011 publication by Rutgers University childhood studies scholars Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins analyzed national survey data of people 14 and up, showing that in civic and political judgement and knowledge, 16 years old performed just as well as adults, on average.

Another criticism of the reform is that it does not abide by the Vermont Constitution. Former Selectboard chairman David Gartenstein confirmed upon inquiry that the selectboard did have public concerns with ballot initiative impacts on Brattleboro form of government, and in 2015, when the Youth Vote was last proposed, they released an “information sheet” stating them. The town was sued by supporters of the Youth Vote, and the case was eventually decided in Vermont Supreme Court, where constitutionality of the “information sheet” was confirmed. The Youth Vote Article was rejected by voters in 2015.

The critique of local government officials and contractors likely played a role. Upon inquiry, Town Manager Peter Elwell stated that no public opinion was taken by him or his office in 2015 or 2019. Gartenstein also took no public position on Youth Vote. However, both men stated that more answers could be found with town attorney Robert Fisher, who had publicly opposed the article on grounds it was unconstitutional. Fisher did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The position of Brattleboro elected representatives is less ambiguous. State Sens. Becca Balint and Jeanette White have publicly endorsed the measure.When asked for comment, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser stated she would do everything to make sure the charter advances, while Rep. Mollie Burke, who is on the House Government Operations Committee, assured its passage through the House. Eventually, the charter will land on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, for him to sign or veto. Scott did not reply when asked for comment on the choice.

In four years, public opinion has shifted in the town. The article will move forward with 70 percent support of Brattleboro citizens and this has established up a new bloc of voters, who have made their priorities clear. It is critical that we, as citizens, exercise our democratic obligation to support reforms we feel necessary. I encourage you to share your view on this with your local legislators, to ensure that majority consensus spurs popular change.

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