By Barbara Taormina
The City Council voted this week against moving forward with the proposal to lower the voting age to 16 in municipal elections, but they left the door ajar for a more detailed version of the initiative sometime down the road.
Councillor-at-Large Steve Winslow, Ward 7 Councillor Neal Anderson, Ward 4 Councillor Ryan O’Malley and Council President Debbie DeMaria voted in favor of petitioning the state legislature for approval to change the city charter and lower the voting age. The remaining councillors either opposed the idea or had questions about how student voting would work and how the community feels about the Vote 16 proposal.
The idea to lower the voting age began with the members of Malden Rising Leaders (MRL) Summer Fellowship Program who researched the issue and presented it to the community during a public forum late last summer. The initiative gained steam during the fall when members of the Malden Civics Youth Council joined forces with MRL to advocate for student voting rights.
Winslow, who worked with students to craft a proposal to submit a home rule petition to the legislature, said a lower voting age would increase civic participation and bolster the city’s inclusiveness. Both he and DeMaria stressed that the petition is only the first step in a process that would require convincing state lawmakers to support the proposal and winning the community’s support through a ballot question.
But other councillors felt they need more input from the community before moving ahead with a home rule petition.
“I’ve heard excellent arguments both for and against this,” said Ward 3 Councillor John Matheson. “But we are elected to represent members of our community, and at this stage, I don’t know how my constituents feel about increasing the voter population by allowing 16 and 17 year olds to have the vote.”
Matheson proposed putting a nonbinding question on the ballot for the 2019 municipal election to gauge the community’s support for Vote16. Councillors seem to agree that was a good point to restart a debate about student voting.
Other councillors felt the Vote16 initiative had moved too quickly through the council’s vetting process and there are too many outstanding questions about how student registration and voting would be implemented.
“We really don’t have the nuts and bolts on how this would work,” said Ward 1 Councillor Peg Crowe, who is also the executive director of the Malden YWCA, an organization focused on empowering young people.
“I think a lot more work needs to be done on this before we send it to the legislature,” she said.
Other councillors suggested that high school juniors and seniors should learn about city issues, politics and elections in school before taking on the responsibility of voting. And Councillor-at-Large Craig Spadafora said he worries that a lower voting age might turn the city’s high schools into political stomping grounds for candidates running in municipal elections.
Although councillors had different views on lowering the voting age, they were united in their respect and admiration for the students who presented the idea and advocated for the change.
“After listening to you speak, there’s no question that you represent the best of the best that this city has to offer,” Ward 2 Councillor Paul Condon told a group of students in the audience.
Condon told students they should be proud that they brought their proposal forward and that they had got the City Council talking and thinking about the idea. “We hold you in the highest respect,” he said.