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VT Constitutional Amendment: Is a "Quiet and Peaceable" Teenager an Oxymoron?


Earlier this week, Vermonters gave an overwhelming thumbs-up to an amendment to the Vermont Constitution that will allow 17 year olds who turn 18 by the date of the general election to vote in the primary election.

Windham County Senator Jeanette White, who introduced the bill that put the measure on the November 2 ballot, explained last month on Vermont Public Radio that her goal was to boost youth voter participation.

“I believe that a person’s first experience with voting is the one that captures them as a voter," White told "Vermont Edition" host Jane Lindholm. "If we can capture them and make them a voter for life, and not just a voter when issues pique their interest but make them an engaged voter, then we’ve done a service to the democracy.”

But this amendment, which doesn't takes effect until 2012, may cover only a very small percentage of teens. Voters who actually read Proposition 5 may have noticed that it only applies to U.S. citizens who have lived in Vermont for a specified period of time and who are "of a quiet and peaceable behavior..."

What, exactly, constitutes a "quiet and peaceable" 17-year-old?

Presumably, one who eschews hip-hop, punk, video games, muscle cars, sporting events, skate parks and all other social contacts with one's peers, except texting and Scrabble. Where might one find these rare and elusive creatures? And more importantly, are they being cloned or bred in captivity?

Alison Kaiser is president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks' and Treasurers' Association. Her organization opposed Prop 5, not because it's against the idea of 17-year-olds voting, but due to the many logistical challenges of its implementation. They include concerns about whether minors can legally swear and oath or affirmation.

But according to White, that doesn't appear to be an issue. In Vermont, 16 year olds can consent to sex, 13 year olds can testify in court, 12 year olds can consent to drug-addiction treatment, and 10 year olds can be held responsible for their own criminal behavior.

But what about the quiet and peaceable clause? Will town clerks now have to certify that a voter always uses his or her indoor voice and doesn't torment the neighbor's poodle?  To that question, Kaiser pleads ignorance.

"I have no idea. We've talked about it and joked about it," she says. "I think there's going to have to be a lot of places in statute that will have to be changed to accommodate this constitutional amendment, and there's probably going to be a lot more conversation on how we're going to do this."

The historical origins of the "quiet and peaceable" phrase remain a mystery. According to state archivist Scott Reilly, the language was included in the original Vermont Constitution of 1777. And while Reilly couldn't immediately put his finger on a Vermont-specific explanation for its usage, he did find a similar reference in the King James Bible. 1 Timothy 2:2 addresses the character of kings and other civic leaders in positions of authority:

 "For kings, and [for] all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." 

Reilly theorizes that the phrase likely would have been familiar to Vermont's founders and may have resonated with them,  "but that's just pure speculation on my part."

Clearly, the Green Mountain Boys never envisioned Grand Theft Auto or Linkin Park.