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Age of Reason

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What's the best way to fight teen apathy and make politicians pay attention to young people's concerns? Lower Vermont's voting age from 18 to 16. That's the view of a group of youth who last weekend launched a Vermont chapter of the National Youth Right Association. NYRA-Vermont also supports changing the state's drinking age from 21 to 18.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Ken Boring, a 20-year-old Duxbury resident, with the help of Hardy Machia, the former Libertarian candidate for governor. Assisting them is Aaron Voldman, a 17-year-old senior at Vermont Commons School in South Burlington. Voldman is also president of Youth for Democracy, a political advocacy group that spun off from Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign.

"The way I see it, it's a two-way street," says Voldman. "Politicians really need to learn that there's a reason young people aren't voting. Politicians aren't giving them a reason to vote."

Voldman argues that if 16-year-olds are legally considered mature enough to drive, pay taxes, emancipate themselves from their parents, drop out of high school and stand trial as adults, they also ought to be allowed to participate fully in the democratic process. He notes that when states hold "mock voting" among young people, the political involvement of their parents also tends to increase.

Lowering Vermont's voting age isn't as farfetched as it may appear. Currently, 10 other states are considering similar measures. Last year, California considered lowering the state's voting age to 14. That effort failed, but supporters say it was doomed by an amendment that would have granted 14-year-olds only a one-quarter vote and 16-year-olds one-half a vote -- a move reminiscent of the 19th-century "three-fifths compromise," which gave blacks only three-fifths of a vote.

Voldman and Boring say they've already discussed the idea with sympathetic lawmakers. Last week Jay Leff, a 17-year-old junior at Burlington High School, presented the idea to the Burlington Education Association.

However, the youth discovered that the road to emancipation is longer than it appeared at first glance. In a letter from Rep. Bill Lippert (DHinesburg), they learned that lowering Vermont's voting age cannot be done by state statute, as they were initially told, but requires the passage of a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments can only be introduced every other biennium, starting in the Senate, and need to be approved by two consecutive Legislatures. In other words, the soonest such an amendment could pass would be six years from now -- long after its current supporters are all of legal voting age.

Nevertheless, Leff says the campaign will continue, albeit at the local level. "We've decided to go ahead and do this in the municipalities, maybe starting in Burlington," Leff says. "The state doesn't have the right to say that municipalities can't change their voting age."

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