By Barbara Taormina
Malden’s political landscape may be in for a seismic shift thanks to a group of teens pushing to lower the voting age to 16 in local elections through a home rule petition that would change the city charter.
Members of Malden Rising Leader’s Summer Fellowship Program presented the results of their research project on lowering the voting age to an audience of city officials and enthusiastic supporters gathered at the Senior Center this week. Malden High School students Jimmy Li, Sean Lightbody, Vanessa Nguyen, Wisly Pericles Jr. and Shataeya Smith provided a wide range of facts and data to support their argument that the city should extend the right to vote in local elections to residents once they reach the age of 16.
“More than 700 hours of research went into this project,” said Ted Louis-Jacques, founder of Malden Rising Leaders, a youth advocacy program that empowers teens to take a role in local civic, social and economic issues.
And the students’ work and commitment were clear. They gathered data that included statistics on teen involvement in community programs and activities, studies on teen maturity and intellectual development and updates on other efforts to lower the voting age to 16.
The students argued that they work and pay taxes, and as taxpayers they are entitled to a say in local matters. They maintained that lowering the voting age would not only bring young voters to the polls, it would increase the participation of Malden’s older eligible voters in local elections. And they made the point repeatedly that times have changed, and teens are compelled to cope with adult issues and accept adult responsibilities at a much younger age than previous generations.
“Students now have lockdowns at school; there’s a lot of emotional stuff to deal with; and bullying is getting worse and worse,” Smith told the audience. “We want to feel we have a voice in all this.”
The students said they feel they should be able to vote on who would serve on the Malden School Committee since that board can directly impact their education and experience at Malden High. But they are also interested in other issues, such as the city’s lack of affordable housing, something several members of the group understand through their own personal experience. They stressed they are working for the right to vote at 16, and not for the right to run for public office.
The students worked with the city’s legal department on a draft of a home rule petition to submit to the state legislature that would allow a city charter change on the voting age. Councillor-at-Large Stephen Winslow will present that petition to the City Council when they reconvene next month.
Former City Councillor Neil Kinnon told the group they have a lot of work ahead, and he urged them to get out and make their case to the community. “You’ll need to do some serious outreach and have numerous public meetings and engage as many people as possible,” he said.
But the students said they are ready for the challenge. They are already planning more meetings with teachers and fellow students along with a grassroots campaign to engage residents in neighborhoods throughout the city.
When Louis-Jacques first posted a notice online about the research project and the group’s planned presentation, the students were hit with a lot of negative responses and comments on the idea of lowering the voting age. “But that only made us want to push harder,” said Smith. “We want to have a voice.”