Politicians often talk about "the youth" as if they’re referring to a precious commodity, like gold, water or action figures. But lawmakers on Beacon Hill could soon consider 17 year olds the most coveted collectibles of them all: voters.
One bill, proposed by Rep. Steven J. D’Amico, D-Seekonk, would allow 17 year olds to vote in primary elections if they’ll be 18 by the general election. Another, proposed by Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, would allow all 17 year olds to vote in local elections.
At a Committee on Election Laws hearing last week, D’Amico said the bill aimed to "encourage the expansion and commitment of young voters to become lifelong voters." D’Amico was inspired when his former intern, Jason Joyce, was shut out of voting in last year’s presidential primary when Massachusetts moved it up in the calendar to compete with other states vying to actually affect the general election. The date of the new primary, dubbed "Super Duper Tuesday," fell five days before Joyce’s 18th birthday.
Joyce testified that he’d campaigned for a certain presidential candidate (probably not McCain) in three states. "It seems self-evident to me that somebody who is planning on participating and voting in the general election should be able to participate throughout the process, including the primaries," Joyce said.
About a dozen members of the Youth Involvement Subcommittee of the Cambridge Kids’ Council testified in support of Atkins’ bill to permit 17 year olds to vote in local elections, saying it would create a culture of voting among high school students, before the distractions of college or full-time employment.
Samuel Gebru, an incoming freshman at Brandeis, argued that high school students are in some ways more qualified as voters than their collegiate elders. "The problem is, if you have an 18 year old that moves away from home," he said, "how do you expect them to understand the politics of a new community? … How are you going to actually vote for the first time there as an 18 year old?"
Rep. Stephen Smith, D-Everett, countered that students away from home could vote by absentee ballot, as his four children, who attend college and graduate school, do.
Some legislators seemed reluctant to support the bills, perhaps out of concern that it would hamper the already bureaucratic maze of registration. Brian McNiff, spokesperson for Secretary of State William Galvin, told the Dig that his office sent in testimony opposing the bills, because they’d create new expenses and logistical challenges for the state and "requirements for voting, including age, are set in the Constitution."
The only direct opposition during the hearing came from Rich Perry, a retired Coast Guard veteran. "I listened to the gentleman who felt that he was disenfranchised and was excluded from a primary election," he said of Joyce’s testimony. "I would also say that there are a bunch of 11 year olds that are disenfranchised also from having their voices heard."