New Haven teens lobby for voting power

Several New Haven high school students are petitioning New Haven to lower the voting age in the city to 16.
Several New Haven high school students are petitioning New Haven to lower the voting age in the city to 16. Photo by Alon Harish.

A teenager-led campaign to lower Connecticut’s voting age to 16 formally arrived on the political scene Wednesday.

At a public hearing of the Board of Aldermen’s Youth Services Committee, several New Haven high school students testified in favor of a resolution that would put the question of lowering the state’s voting age on the city ballot as a nonbinding referendum in the Nov. 8 election. By a vote of four to one, the committee voted Wednesday to discharge the matter to the full Board of Aldermen, which must approve the referendum with at least 20 votes for it to appear on the ballot in November.

The students, affiliated with an advocacy group called The New 18, argued not only that 16-year-olds have the capacity and civic knowledge to be entrusted with the vote, but also that the state’s laws forbidding them to vote while allowing them to marry, drive and be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes are inconsistent.

“We trust 16-year-olds to get out of the way of a speeding truck on the highway, but not to vote,” said Carlee Carvalko, one of The New 18’s leaders.

At age 16, most high school students take mandatory civics classes, Carvalko added. Without the right to vote, however, they cannot practice what they learn, she said, a point that was echoed in much of the following testimony before the committee.

Because voting laws are written at the state level, not the municipal level, the effect of a citywide referendum would be purely symbolic. And even if state law were changed to allow 16-year-olds to vote, the voting age of 18 in federal elections would remain unchanged.

The New 18 traces its origins to a constitutional law class that Carvalko and other members took at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. The class, taught by Nicolas Riley LAW ’11 through a Yale Law School program, ignited an interest among students to rally support for the enfranchisement of their age group.

Riley, now an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said the students’ campaign is part of a broader struggle to keep American democracy as open as possible.

“We’re constantly up against a perspective that says you need to jump through certain hoops to share your voice,” Riley said. “But democracy is about allowing as many people as have the capacity to participate to do so.”

Another major reason to lower the voting age, Riley said, is less about rights and more about voter psychology. Many 18-year-olds become eligible to vote after arriving in a college environment where they may not be politically informed yet, he said. They are then also more likely to begin a habit of neglecting to vote, he added. If those same teenagers are given a chance to vote while they are still living in their hometowns, however, they will be more likely to continue engaging in the political process, he said.

“I’m about to move to Chicago in two weeks and know nothing about the politics there,” Leah Gimbel, another students of Riley’s who is now 18, said.

The New 18 and its supporters have lobbied lawmakers in Hartford but have so far failed to generate much interest at the state level, Riley said. As a result, the students have decided to start by building support at the grassroots level, he said.

Despite what seemed like a groundswell of support for the students’ campaign in the aldermanic chamber Wednesday night, two vocal detractors made the two-hour-long hearing less than unanimous.

Tina Doyle, president of the New Haven League of Women Voters, said her organization is opposed to lowering the state’s voting age because high school students have not yet developed the maturity necessary to vote. As an alternative to real ballots, Doyle suggested that New Haven schools adopt a Hamden High School tradition: mock presidential campaigns.

“Young people should focus on their education,” Doyle said. “When they get out into the working world and have finished high school, they have a better sense of who they are and where they are.”

But young people are invested in their home communities and are affected by decisions on school budgets and public safety, Ward 24 Alderman Marcus Paca countered. Almost all civic and social groups in the city have auxiliary youth groups, he said, adding that he volunteered for the League of Women voters in Newhallville as a 13-year-old.

Both candidates vying to replace Michael Jones ’11 as Ward 1 Alderman attended the public hearing. Vinay Nayak ’14 testified before the committee, praising the students for their initiative while stopping short of endorsing their goal of lowering the voting age. Sarah Eidelson ’12 said after the hearing that she is pleased to see high school students taking an active role in the political process and that she would vote in favor of the referendum.

Jones offered unqualified support for the students’ mission because bringing more voters into the political process will benefit the city as a whole, he said.

“Anemic voter turnout is a driving force of the political dysfunction in this city,” Jones said.

In Lowell, Mass., students have conducted similar lobbying efforts. Daniel Widrew, a representative of the National Youth Rights Association present at the hearing, said he believes that campaigns may make Lowell the first city in the country where 17-year-olds are able to vote.

In 2008, Connecticut’s General Assembly passed a law to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they would turn 18 before the corresponding general elections.

Because of a Connecticut secretary of state deadline, the board must approve the referendum at its next meeting Tuesday if it is to be put to city voters in November.

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