Somerville to Consider Expanding Municipal Voting Rights to Teenagers (Aged 16 and 17) and Non-Citizens
Expanded voting rights among 16 recommendations in Clean and Open Elections Task Force report
A recently released report by the Somerville Clean and Open Elections Task Force includes 16 recommendations to increase voter participation, lower barriers to candidate participation, and increase the openness and transparency of the election process. At the request of Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, two of the recommendations will soon be under debate by the Board of Aldermen: that for City and School Board elections only, the City seek home rule petitions from the State Legislature to lower the voting age to 16 and expand voting to non-citizens who would otherwise be eligible to vote.
The eight-person Task Force, which was convened by Mayor Curtatone via an open call for members, was asked to “look at root causes and take a systems approach to ensure fair, equitable, and open elections that inspire greater participation both by voters and candidates.” Members include six residents whose experience collectively includes civic engagement, data transparency, legal ethics, social change, voter registration research, and other related skills. Ward 2 Alderman J.T. Scott and Elections Commissioner Nick Salerno are also on the Task Force. The group’s recommendations include:
- Consolidate elections so that municipal elections are held at the same time as state elections.
- Coordinate and/or encourage non-partisan Election Day festivities—including free food and drink, music, and more—at or nearby polling places.
- Design a mechanism for Somerville’s election officials (chair and members of the Board of Election Commissioners) to reach out to voters to encourage participation in every election.
- Encourage the state to adopt electronic poll books allowing subsequent implementation of voting centers and same day registration.
- Relocate polling places to sites that are more likely to ensure that all voters feel safe and welcome (i.e., avoid locations such as police stations and houses of worship).
- Expand suffrage rights via home rule petition and/or state legislation as necessary.
- Increase the City’s commitment to the civic education of young people by adopting a robust civics education curriculum and developing ways to involve high school age students in the civic life of the community.
- Increase availability of election-related data and incorporate into Somerville’s Key System Indicators.
- Publish and distribute comprehensive voter guides to ensure voters have access to complete, accurate, and unbiased election information.
- Take action to increase the transparency of political ad purchasing online.
- Adopt ranked choice voting for all municipal elections and support the adoption of ranked choice voting at the state level.
- Align with new federal guidelines to allow spending of campaign funds on child and elder care expenses incurred as a direct result of time spent on campaigning.
- Create and implement a public financing model for municipal elections.
- Increase the proactive dissemination of information regarding all aspects of elected positions in the city: Mayor, Board of Aldermen, and School Committee, including the role and responsibilities of each and how to run for elected office.
“I want to thank the Task Force for its thoughtful, well-researched, and carefully considered work,” said Mayor Curtatone. “In a time when voting rights protections are declining and voter suppression is often going unchecked, their proposals for expanding democratic participation at the local level deserve serious consideration—and action. I look forward to taking on this work with the broader community.”
A number of the proposals would require either changes to Mass General Law and/or the approval of home rule petitions by the State Legislature to allow exceptions in Somerville. To start debate on two such proposals, on October 11, Mayor Curtatone submitted a request to the Board of Aldermen. It asks for Board approval to seek home rule petitions to allow municipal voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds and otherwise eligible non-citizens.
Somerville would not be alone in this effort. The report notes that six other Massachusetts cities and towns have considered related policies regarding non-citizens including Cambridge, Brookline, Amherst, Newton, Wayland, and, very recently, Boston. It also cites two Maryland communities, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, which have already instituted lower voting ages, and Takoma Park, which has permitted all non-citizen residents to vote in its municipal elections since 1992.
“We're excited to have produced a thorough, evidence-driven report that will make Somerville a national leader in municipal efforts to increase civic participation and equal representation, said Josh Rosmarin, a member of the Task Force. “We hope that many of the recommendations in our report will be adopted as we work to make Somerville's elections more equitable and open.”
“The Task Force has done its work, and now the community must begin ours. That starts with what I hope will be rigorous debate by the Board and public hearings on expanding voting access for City and School Committee elections,” said Mayor Curtatone. “To be clear, I have my own opinions on this. We have teenagers whom our courts consider adults, yet they are told they are too young for the voting booth. And we have dedicated parents and engaged neighbors who, because they lack citizenship at the national level, can’t vote at the local level. I’d argue our community will be stronger when our youth learn early that it matters if they participate, when all our parents have a voice, and when all our neighbors are heard. But I also respect that this is an issue with opposing views. It’s time though that we start that conversation.”
The additional 14 proposals range from non-legislative suggestions with expected modest but meaningful impacts, such as that the City hold Election Day festivities near polling places to increase voter turnout. The report cites two studies that show increases of up to 7 percentage points as a result of such events. Other proposals, while requiring a longer legislative process, could boost voter participation significantly, such as holding municipal elections in the same years as State elections, which the report states can increase turnout as much as two-fold.
“Voter participation is at the core of our democracy, and the Elections Commissions takes its duty to facilitate participation with the utmost seriousness,” said Elections Commissioner Nick Salerno. “We look forward to getting started on the recommendations that can be implemented immediately, such as expanded informational materials for voters and candidates. And we’re inspired by the forward-thinking that the Task Force has now put on the table.”
To view the full report, please visit www.somervillema.gov/ElectionsReport. To stay informed of Board of Aldermen (BOA) discussions or any planned public hearings, sign for the City email newsletter at www.somervillema.gov/eNews, and check the City and BOA calendars at www.somervillema.gov/Events and www.somervillema.gov/BOA.