When Takoma Park’s next election day arrives in November, the lines of voters ready to cast their ballots for the City Council will include a new set of voters making history.
During its Monday meeting, the Takoma Park City Council passed a series of city charter amendments regarding its voting and election laws, including one allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections.
With Monday’s vote, Takoma Park became the first city in the United States to lower its voting age — which was previously 18 — to 16.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director for the political advocacy organization Common Cause Maryland, said the city’s decision marks “a really important step forward” and “a perfect way to get the youth vote mobilized.”
Bevan-Dangel said she hopes other cities will seriously consider lowering their voting age as well, and she doesn’t think Takoma Park will be the last to make such a change.
“Where a city is brave enough to make a step like this, others will follow,” she said.
During an April 8 public hearing on the voting age amendment, testimony included young Takoma Park residents who cited their readiness and eagerness to participate in city elections, as well as other residents who said the teenagers lacked the maturity and experience to handle the responsibility and that they would be easily influenced by their parents.
John Mannes, student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, said the right granted to the city’s 16- and 17-year-olds sets a precedent and has implications “much broader than Takoma Park.”
Mannes — who said he helped organize students to testify at the hearing and filmed Montgomery Blair High School students offering their perspectives on the amendment — said he thinks the younger set of teens deserve the right and will embrace it.
“It’s less of a question of ‘Why?’ and more of a question of ‘Why not?’” he said.
Before he voted to support the amendment, Mayor Bruce Williams said while he originally had not been convinced the change was a good one, he agreed with the argument that lowering the voting age could help residents establish a lifelong habit of voting.
For Councilman Tim Male — who initiated the council’s voting age discussion — the amendment “is a great step forward” in a set of important charter changes.
“We have many 16- and 17-year-olds in our community who care deeply about this place,” and are deeply engaged in politics, Male (Ward 2) said.
Councilman Fred Schultz (Ward 6) — who later gave the only opposing vote to the amendments — proposed a motion during the meeting that the charter amendments be put to referendum during the city’s November election. The motion did not pass the council.
Some city residents have voiced support for a referendum and frustration with the process around the voting age issue.
Ed Sharp, former mayor of Takoma Park, said he thinks the voting age amendment should be put on the November ballot, and that it would be a close vote.
Sharp compared the age amendment to another voting rights change in Takoma Park that occurred when residents voted in 1991 through a referendum to give non-citizens the right to vote in the city.
“I think we felt that was a big enough deal (to put to referendum),” he said.
Catherine Tunis, another city resident, said during the Monday meeting that about 30 people had signed a petition calling for the charter amendments to be put to referendum.
Former city council member Colleen Clay said she thinks the council did not allow time for adequate discussion on the issue, and the city missed out on an opportunity to continue an important conversation.
Commenting on an online petition to recall Male — signed by only three people as of Thursday — Clay said she thinks that Male did not do enough to listen to and consult with residents.
“We need to debate it for more than three months,” Clay said.
Male said he works to provide information to his constituents and let them know what he plans to do on the council and that residents “absolutely” had enough time to learn about and comment on the voting age amendment.
“We went through all the stages, and then some,” he said.