Haverhill Rep. Andy Vargas spoke with civic-minded teens during a Statehouse session on Jan. 24. (Courtesy photograph by Chris Lisinski/SHNS)
A dozen new lobbyists roamed the halls of the Statehouse on Thursday, carrying clipboards and fliers, but forgoing business attire in favor of skinny jeans and hoodies.
Their goal was to find legislators who would co-sponsor a new bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds such as themselves to vote in municipal elections. In meeting after meeting with aides and elected officials, they ran through talking points, arguing that such a measure has already been sought in several communities and that the change would promote political engagement in the wake of the state’s new civics-education bill.
Not actually registered lobbyists, the dozen or so teenagers that lobbied lawmakers Thursday were part of Vote16, a group working to lower the voting age. The State House News Service said Haverhill’s Rep. Andy Vargas was among those who met with the teens in support of legislation known as the EMPOWER Act.
The legislation would grant cities and towns the power to extend voting rights to individuals as young as 16 for local elections. Vargas is supported in his effort by Rep. Dylan Fernandes and Sen. Harriette Chandler, who also worked on the bill.
The proposed change would not be mandatory. Communities where leaders wanted to lower the voting age could opt-in under the law, proponents said, without needing to secure passage of a home-rule petition as is currently required. Newly registered teenagers would only be able to vote in municipal races, not in state or federal elections.
“Local government is really where you can cut your teeth in politics, really get to know how politics and government impact lives on a daily basis,” Vargas said.
A handful of other significant statewide electoral reforms have been proposed or approved in recent years. Early-voting days have been offered leading up to biennial elections since 2016, and automatic voter registration will likely begin in 2020. The state also passed a bill last year to require schools to include non-partisan civics projects, something that lawmakers said ties in closely with the voting-age proposal.
“We signed a bill last year that provides civic education,” Chandler said. “This is just a continuation of that, as far as I’m concerned.”