Mass. Teens Inch Closer To Lowering Voting Age to 17

PHOTO: Students from United Teen Equality Center

When 17-year-old Carline Kirksey went knocking on doors around her hometown of Lowell, Mass. last summer, seeking support for a measure to lower the voting age, many of her neighbors were surprised to learn she wasn't just selling Girl Scout cookies.

Nowadays Kirksey is walking the halls of the Massachusetts state house, lobbying lawmakers to allow her classmates -- kids too young to set foot in a nightclub -- to step into a voting booth and cast a ballot.

"We knocked on something like 3,000 doors," Kirksey said. "Some people didn't like the idea of letting 17-year-olds vote, but we got a lot of people to change their minds."

Kirksey and her peers, organized by the United Teen Equality Center, may be on the verge of voting in municipal elections in Lowell.

If successful, they'll be the only 17-year-olds anywhere in the U.S. who can legally cast ballots in a government contest.

But success still could be a long way off. The measure, backed by the Lowell city council, requires passage in the Massachusetts legislature, and then a referendum by city residents.

If passed, high school seniors will be allowed to vote only in Lowell municipal elections, not in state or federal sweepstakes.

Students in Lowell first started talking about changing the voting age two years ago, following cuts to school programs. But they were motivated to turn that chatter into a movement when 18 out of 19 city council candidates said they'd support a change to the rules.

"We feel that teens didn't really have a voice," said Susan Le, also a 17-year-old senior at Lowell High School. "I felt like I didn't have a voice in school. They cut one of my classes, political science, and I couldn't do anything about it."

With local politicians on their side, including Mayor Patrick Murphy, the town brought the idea to the state legislature to receive a special "home rule" dispensation for the city.

The bill recently passed committee, but still needs a vote by the state's full house.

The effort, said Murphy, aligns with something else the students want: A civics curriculum in the schools.

"We're encouraging life-long voting habits and capturing a whole group of people that we'd otherwise lose by moving on to college or out of town," he said, summing up the pitch students and the local politicians have made to the state house.

Murphy insists his support of the initiative isn't self serving. By the time the legislature votes and the city holds a referendum, he said, "I might not even still be in politics."

He also has a rejoinder for those who say enfranchising 17-year-olds just means more Democrats in Lowell. "If people are so worried about 17 year olds changing the dynamics of a local election, perhaps the 75 percent of voters who don't participate should start voting," he said.

Neither history, nor time is on the students' side. Similar initiatives in Baltimore and Cambridge, Mass. were unsuccessful and the legislature may find it has more pressing business than voting on a home-rule initiative focused on one town, said Geoff Foster, UTEC's political action organizer.

Moreover, the state's secretary of state opposes the initiative, writing a letter to lawmakers telling them the bill violates the state constitution.

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