If you’re old enough to drive, you’re old enough to vote, the majority of Boston city councilors decided Wednesday, bringing 16-and 17-year-olds one step closer to enfranchisement in the city.
By a 9-4 vote, councilors passed a petition to allow Boston residents aged 16 and 17 to vote in municipal elections, as long as they meet all other legal qualifications.
“We have a lot of young people who are working — oftentimes two jobs — just to help support their families, paying taxes and on the front lines protesting and trying to find ways to have their voices heard. And every day we make decisions on their behalf,” said Councilor Julia Mejia, who co-sponsored the petition.
Mostly supported by the council’s growing number of progressive members, the docket now makes its way to Mayor Michelle Wu’s desk. If Wu signs off on the home rule petition, it gets passed along to the state Legislature.
Mejia expressed some concern about the petition gaining state approval, saying “We know what happens at the State House — most things go there to die.”
“I believe that this is an opportunity for us to organize other municipalities across the state and then create the groundswell of support that this initiative deserves and that is led by young people,” she said.
Several communities, including Ashfield, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lowell, Northampton, Shelburne, Somerville and Wendell, have all sought legislation to lower the voting age in municipal elections in the past.
In 2019, state lawmakers introduced twin bills (H 720 and S 389) to grant municipal governments the power to lower the voting age in their communities without individually seeking home rule petitions.
Dubbed the EMPOWER Act by supporters, both the House and Senate versions of the bill sat for about a year in the Joint Committee on Election Laws before that panel held a public hearing on the proposals. No action was taken at the end of the 2019-2020 session.
Boston Councilor Liz Breadon said she hopes to work with the Boston delegation at the State House this upcoming session to pass the law.
In the current session, lawmakers introduced seven bills that would lower the voting age across the state that have not made it to final passage with only about one month left in the two-year session.
The Election Laws Committee forwarded four home rule petitions to lower the voting age to study this year, for the towns of Northampton, Brookline, Somerville and Wendell. The committee also sent to study the seven statewide bills that would lower the voting age across the state.
The Election Laws Committee’s focus this session was on getting the so-called VOTES Act passed, which made permanent the mail-in and early voting options that proved popular during the pandemic, said a spokesperson for Sen. Barry Finegold, who serves as the chair of the committee.
Asked if the home rule petitions to lower voter age requirements or the EMPOWER Act were on the committee’s to-do list for the upcoming session, the spokesperson said they could not speak to the committee’s future filings.
Boston Councilor Kenzie Bok said the Boston home rule petition would, if passed, help young people develop the habit of voting at an early age and learn more about civic engagement.
“I think that if we give our young folks a chance to start forming that voting habit when they’re 16 or 17, when they’re still rooted in the communities that they lived their whole life in… that’s actually how you build that civic habit that really leads to lifelong civic engagement,” she said.
The councilors at-large were split, with Michael Flaherty and Erin Murphy voting against the petition, and Mejia and Ruthzee Louijeune voting in favor of the measure. Other yes votes included Gabriela Coletta, Brian Worrell, Ricardo Arroyo, Kendra Lara, Tania Fernandes Anderson, Bok and Breadon. City Council President Ed Flynn and Councilor Frank Baker voted against the measure.
— Sam Drysdale / State House News Service