Takoma Park teens speak out for lower voting age -- Gazette.Net


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This story was corrected at 3:45 p.m. on April 10, 2013. An explanation follows the story.

As he spoke on lowering Takoma Park’s voting age to 16, a Montgomery Blair High School student voiced a shared sentiment among young speakers at a city council public hearing Monday when he said, “I promise you, we’re ready.”

The Takoma Park City Council is currently considering several charter amendments related to the city’s voting and elections laws — one of which would grant 16- and 17-year-old city residents the right to vote in municipal elections.

The city charter currently requires voters to be 18 years old.

If passed, the city would be the first in the U.S. to the lower the voting age to 16.

The voting age amendment got the most microphone time at the city council’s public hearing Monday, which included testimony from young residents who said they are knowledgeable about the government, interested in political issues and want the chance to have their voices heard.

Several said they saw the same desire in their peers.

Leigh Cook, also a student at Montgomery Blair, said she had learned about national, state and local governments in an AP government class and is interested in local issues.

“As a 16-year-old, I would like to have some say in the matters that are important to all of us,” she said.

Camille Kirsch, of Takoma Park, identified herself as a teen and said that she believes 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote “because people who care about this community should have a voice.”

This group of teenagers, Kirsch said, would gain the right to vote while they still have some time to exercise it in their hometowns before they leave for college.

Other young county residents joined their Takoma Park peers with their support for the amendment.

“Granting voting rights to more youths is an investment,” said Carmen Huynh, of Germantown, as it would help create voters who are knowledgeable and capable of making their own decisions.

“I’m simply asking for the respect and time that is given to my adult counterparts,” said Huynh, a student at Seneca Valley High School.

Bill Bystricky, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, said he used to be a teacher and would hear students ask why they should learn about government if they couldn’t yet vote.

For students to adequately learn, he said, “They need to be part of that democracy now.”

Yet other speakers at the hearing opposed the change.

City resident Catherine Tunis said that while she admired the motivation behind the proposed amendment to help engage young voters, she thought the council was “off base.”

“Everyone who wants power is going to ask for it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they are ready to handle it.”

Ed Edwards, of Takoma Park, said he applauded the notion of getting young residents more involved, but thought younger teens lacked the experience that results “when pragmatism butts up against idealism in the adult world.”

Another speaker said that young people often vote similarly to their parents and are more likely to vote if they come from politically inclined families.

Granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the city, he said, would increase the power of homes “that are already politically active.”

City councilmember Terry Seamens said that though he had started out leaning toward opposition of the amendment and remains undecided, he found the spoken and submitted testimony on the issue persuasive.

“They certainly were passionate,” Seamens said of the young speakers. “It was striking, the maturity of their various presentations.”

City councilmember Tim Male — who initiated the council’s discussion on the issue — said that he was pleased to see the number of teenage residents at the hearing, who he described as “clearly engaged.”

Though he said he had a positive impression of the hearing’s young speakers, city councilmember Fred Schultz said he remained opposed to the amendment, in part because he didn’t hear the young potential voters speak about specific issues and doesn’t think 16- and 17-year-olds have adequate experience to vote.

“There’s a certain amount of stuff you don’t know until you’ve lived long enough,” he said.

Voting rights for felons

The public hearing also drew speakers in favor of another amendment that would allow felons to vote after they had served their sentence of incarceration.

One city resident — later echoed by others — said she wanted to see the city council go a step further and allow felons to vote while they are still incarcerated.

She said that the criminal justice system disenfranchises people in many ways and that voting is a civil right.

“People are less likely to commit crimes when they feel invested in their community,” she said.

Jerry Cowan, of Takoma Park, said he had recently been released after 32 years of incarceration and wants the opportunity to help make Takoma Park a better place.

Felons should be able to participate in the community, Cowan said, a scenario he sees is not always the case.

“Ex-offenders, when they come out, they are shunned,” he said.

lpowers@gazette.net

A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Carmen Huynh is the president of the Montgomery County Regional Student Government Association. Huynh is the president-elect.