By Rebecca Olshan, Community News Service

In 1971 legislators across the country agreed to standardize a lower voting age of 18. More recently, officials in some towns have started suggesting even younger voters deserve more of a say — including in Brattleboro, which lowered its local voting age to 16 last June following a decade of resistance and two gubernatorial vetoes.



“I think young people are smarter than I was at their age … a different world requires and imposes a different mindset on young people,” said Kurt Daims, executive director at Brattleboro Common Sense, an activist organization that began advocating for the youth vote amendment in 2013. “We’ve just got to get new blood in this system.”

But towns in the Mad River Valley area don’t seem likely to join the movement.

“This change opens a Pandora’s box,” said Mike Bard, a select board member from Waterbury. “There are some people who are very responsible at the age of 16, but there are plenty who are just not.”

Members from select boards across Valley towns including Waitsfield, Warren and Moretown say they aren’t considering the idea right now.

“I applaud 16-year-olds who want to become active and participate, but I’d have to give it some long thought before I think I’d open the vote to them,” said Fred Messer, member of the Waitsfield Select Board. “They can do a lot of things that would be just as meaningful and beneficial than simply casting a vote.”

Said Bard, “There is nothing that prevents young people from showing up at a select board meeting or writing into legislatures to make their points. I encourage them to be a part of the process, but I’m not sure voting is the place to start.”

Others in the Mad River Valley community believe following Brattleboro’s lead would result in positive change.

Matt Henchen, civics teacher and head of the history department at Harwood Union High School, said there’s value in youth voting.


“The belief that young people are not educated or informed enough and that they would make a bad decision is a dominant belief in our society that needs to be challenged,” said Henchen. “What I would argue is that I know plenty of 16- and 17-year-olds who are more informed on political and policy-related issues than adults.”

Henchen works closely with his school’s chapter of Youth Lobby, a statewide activist group focused on young people, and supports the notion that young voters have a place in politics. “They’re being taxed, their money is being spent, and yet they have no say over where it goes,” he said.

Harwood Union’s Youth Lobby Club has not yet begun a strong push for lowering the local voting age, he said, but the topic has come up in group discussions since the change in Brattleboro.

The change gave 16- and 17-year-old Brattleboro residents the ability to vote in municipal elections, serve on the town’s select board and participate in Town Meetings. Residents have argued that since 16-year-olds can drive, work and pay taxes, they might as well be able to vote.

According to the National Youth Rights Voting Association, six other towns across the country have made similar amendments, including two in California and four in Maryland. The topic has even been broached on a congressional level; in 2018  U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-NY, proposed altering the 26th Amendment.

Still, uncertainty about joining in persists, as do questions about younger voters’ ability to make informed decisions.

“When people pose this idea that they don’t know enough or are not informed enough, I would push back against that and say, ‘Well, isn’t that a problem?’” said Henchen. “Shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t they have some level of political literacy to form a political position? This is a problem we can address.”

Olshan reported this story on assignment from The Valley Reporter. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.