RI Lawmakers Propose Teen Voting Rights in School Committee Elections

An idea to promote more civic engagement returns for the second consecutive year.

Henry Siravo, a Smithfield High School student, speaks in support of Rep. Leonela Felix’s bill at a March 26, 2024, meeting of the House Committee on State Government and Elections. (Screencap/Capitol TV)

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They can serve as pages in the General Assembly. They can drive a car. They can give blood. They can consent to medical care, or sex. They can work 48 hours in a week and pay taxes on these earnings. They can put that money in a savings account they’ve opened.

These are some things 17-year-olds can do in Rhode Island, and a few apply to 16-year-olds as well. A recent pair of bills brought to the State House would give older teenagers one more privilege: the ability to vote in elections for their local school committees.

“Students go to the meetings, they can talk at the meetings, they can give all the ideas that they want,” said Henry Siravo, 17, a senior at Smithfield High School. “But at the end of the day, how often do they get listened to? We get brushed off as kids.”

A pair of bills sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers — H8046 by Rep. Leonela Felix of Pawtucket and S2895 by Sen. Tiara Mack of Providence — would make it harder to brush off kids.

The identical bills do not mandate any statewide changes. They would create the statutory outline to allow 16- and 17 year-olds to vote in school committee elections, but the key phrase in the bills’ language is that municipalities “may provide” this privilege — it wouldn’t be required. Additional stipulations are that the 16- or 17 year-old would have to be a resident of the municipality for at least 30 days, and register at least 30 days before the school election itself.

“We always talk about people not being engaged in elections as adults,” Felix said in a phone interview. “What better way to get them engaged than starting early?”

Siravo started early: He originally became involved with Young Democrats of Rhode Island, who have also pushed for the current legislation, after he rallied against the Smithfield School Committee in 2023, who were considering a disclosure policy that could potentially out transgender and LGBTQ students to their parents.

“I organized over 100 students, but mostly parents, teachers and just community members to come out against that, because as powerful as the testimonies of the students were, they didn’t vote. They didn’t get to hold them accountable at the ballot box,” Siravo said.

“We really don’t have financial power to donate to candidates,” Siravo continued. “The bare minimum that we’re asking for is a voice, so that we can say, ‘If you slash our department funding, if you make school really hell to go to … we’re gonna vote you out.’ Right now, we don’t have that voice. We don’t have that say.”

The legislation mirrors efforts in other states to see youths represented in electoral processes. Maryland state law leaves it up to municipalities to lower the voting age for local elections — and the city of Takoma Park enacted their youth voting legislation over a decade ago in 2013 when they approved 16-year-olds’ participation in local elections.

Earlier this year in Newark, New Jersey, municipal officials OK’d 16-year-olds’ votes in school committee elections — although Chalkbeat reported in February that the law wouldn’t be in effect until 2025 because of voter registration issues. KQED reported that Berkeley and Oakland passed measures allowing 16-year-olds to vote but that the law hasn’t been satisfactorily enacted yet either.

Meanwhile, campaigns similar to Rhode Island’s are underway in Michigan, Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts as well as a number of California cities, according to advocacy organization Vote16USA. A successful passage of youth voting laws in New York that will take effect by July 1, 2024, has led the New York City Bar to offer guidance on the rollout.

Data from the CIA World Factbook shows that 18 is the standard voting age for many countries, although suffrage begins earlier in some places than others. Nicaragua, Cuba and Austria provide universal suffrage starting at age 16. Estonia and Germany allow 16-year-olds to vote in some local and state elections. If you’re 16 and employed, you can vote in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Argentina and Brazil up the ante by requiring citizens ages 18 to 70 to vote in elections or face fines and penalties — but 16- and 17 year-olds can voluntarily vote, too.

At the March 26 hearing of Felix’s bill in the House Committee on State Government and Elections, two Republicans and one Democrat were unconvinced. Rep. Brian Newberry, a Smithfield Republican, worried about students having say over municipal bodies who make budgetary decisions.

Rep. Patricia Morgan argued against 16-year-olds’ mental readiness to vote. “At the age of 16, they really are not adults,” said Morgan, a West Warwick Republican. “And they don’t have that capacity. As much as whatever, you know, research you got, it’s just not true.”

Rep. Arthur Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, was more specific in his criticism: “I don’t buy that the same individuals who would support allowing teenage and young adult murderers to either get out of jail or have a reduced sentence because of their inability to understand what they did — but you want 16-year-olds to vote in elections? I’m sorry.”

Felix told Corvese that cognitive processes involved in crime and voting are hardly the same. Comparing impulse decisions like crime is entirely different from the decision making they would use at the ballot box, she suggested.

“The research has shown that youth, when it comes to non-impulsive behavior, they’re just as rational as adults,” Felix said. “It’s astonishing to me to hear folks talk about that.”

The Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore supports the legislation, offering a few reasons why youth voting is worth considering.

“Ultimately, we believe that our youth should be directly engaged in their communities and in the democratic systems and structures that govern them so that they become lifelong citizens and active participants in our democracy,” Amore wrote in a testimony submitted in support of Felix’s bill.

Potential issues with the bill involved ballot preparation and implementation, but Amore noted his office would be happy to help tweak the law and make it more logistically viable.

Both Felix’s bill and Mack’s have been held for further study since their respective hearings in House and Senate committees.

Larry Berman and Greg Paré, spokespeople for the House and Senate respectively, offered a statement via email.

“These bills were heard in their respective Senate and House committees earlier this session,” they wrote. “The Senate President and Speaker will be reviewing the testimony and communicating with the chairpersons as part of the normal committee review process.”

This is the second year Rhode Island’s General Assembly has seen this legislation, said Mary-Murphy Walsh, the president of the Young Democrats of Rhode Island. But the idea is still young.

“I think next year might be easier considering all the other priorities that the legislature has,” Felix said.

Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: info@rhodeislandcurrent.com. Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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