Effort to lower voting age hits snag

Harish_VotingAge
Photo by Alon Harish.

Tuesday night’s Board of Aldermen meeting was a defeat for The New 18, a group of New Haven high school students aiming to lower the state’s voting age to 16.

By a vote of 13 to nine, aldermen rejected a measure that would have put the question of lowering the voting age on the city ballot as a nonbinding referendum in the Nov. 8 election. Because of a deadline enacted by the secretary of the state, the referendum’s rejection Tuesday night was fatal to its chances of appearing on the ballot in November. While Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark championed the referendum, arguing that it would provide an opportunity to gauge public opinion on the issue, most aldermen were not convinced that it warranted the $3,000 to $4,000 in city expenses.

“At a time when every penny counts in this city, why should I have to pay for a referendum so that these teenagers can hear from their state representative?” asked Ward 11 Alderwoman Maureen O’Sullivan-Best.

Because voting laws are written at the state level, not the municipal level, the effect of a citywide referendum would be purely symbolic. So far, the students said, their efforts in lobbying state legislators to take up the voting age issue have been unsuccessful.

The board’s most vocal opponent of ballot referenda is its president, Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield, and Tuesday night was no exception. As an absolute matter, he said, he rejected the notion that 16-year-olds are mature enough to vote, but a referendum to appraise city voters’ opinions on the matter simply is not worth the money it would cost taxpayers, he said.

Given the cost of printing referendum questions on ballots, the city should have a high bar for ballot referenda and limit them only to matters over which the city’s judgment remains the final authority, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 said, though he added that he takes the student’s campaign seriously.

Carlee Carvalko, a high school senior from Derby and a New 18 leader, said her group was unfazed by the defeat and planned to continue its campaign.

“This is such a new idea that we didn’t expect to win the first time,” she said. “Now that more people know about it, they’ll be more likely to support us in the future.”

The New 18 plans to meet with Elicker to discuss next steps, which will include more lobbying in Hartford, Carvalko said.

In her testimony against the referendum Tuesday night, which appeared to sway several aldermen, O’Sullivan-Best noted that not a single representative from The New 18 attended the board’s meeting.

“I’m disappointed that none of them are here — how can they convince a majority of New Haven that the state should let them vote at 16 if they can’t even show up to try to convince us?” she said.

Clark said she agreed with O’Sullivan-Best that the teens’ failure to attend the meeting suggested a lack of enthusiasm to the aldermen they needed to persuade.

“I think they might have garnered a few more votes if they had been here in numbers, and I hope next time they learn that lesson,” she said.

Members of The New 18 did try to attend the meeting, Carvalko said, but some were deterred by heavy rains, which shut down Derby’s bus system Tuesday.

The defeat comes on the heels of a lively public hearing last Wednesday on the voting age at the board’s Youth Services Committee.

At the hearing, which lasted nearly three hours, several New 18 representatives argued that the state’s voting age is inconsistent with other laws that grant 16-year-olds the power to marry, drive and be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes.

Even if state law were changed to allow 16-year-olds to vote, the voting age of 18 in federal elections would remain unchanged.

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