Critics of the young people sleeping on cardboard at Occupy Wall Street argue the next generation should engage in the political process, not merely protest it. But some very politically engaged young people in Lowell, Massachusetts, are revealing that the political system doesn’t exactly welcome their engagement.
Earlier this year, 1,500 members of the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) launched a campaign in Lowell to lower the voting age to 17 for city elections. The entire effort, from fundraising, to door knocking to lobbying legislators, was organized and led by the teens. They made an eloquent case for lowering the voting age.
“When you’re 17, that’s when most of us are seniors,” said Carline Kirksey, one of the youth leaders of the campaign. “You have more adult responsibilities. You can join the military. You can be tried as an adult in court.”
Another organizer Corinne Plaisir chimes in, saying that at 18 many young people are off at college. Figuring out the process all alone and voting unceremoniously by absentee ballot aren’t exactly enticements to civic participation. Instead, argues Plaisir, if young people can start voting in high school as part of their civics education, “It’s a prime time to engage in our civic rights.”Plus research has shown that when teens engage in even mock elections, their voter turnout as adults increases by almost 10 percent.
The teens aren't trying to change the entire electoral system, simply open up local elections to 17-year-olds giving them a voice in the local politics that affect their education and lives —and creating an important test-run for civic participation that, hopefully, the teens will enthusiastically continue into adulthood.
The Vote 17 campaign that Kirksey and Plaisir help lead has gotten further than any similar effort in recent history. Campaigns to lower the voting age for local elections in Cambridge, Mass, and Chicago barely achieved public attention let alone key political support. After winning the backing of local politicians and persuading the state legislature to pass a home rule petition allowing the city of Lowell to amend its local voting-age rules, the Massachusetts Secretary of State argued lowering the voting age would violate the state constitution. Despite the fact that the teens recruited Harvard Law constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe to write a decisive rebuttal endorsing the campaign, the Secretary of State has effectively stalled their progress.
That doesn’t mean they’re done. Lowell teens are now trying to put a measure on the 2013 ballot to achieve their goal. In the meantime, they’re finding other ways to have a voice. In early November, UTEC is organizing a forum for Lowell city council candidates at the local high school. The teen leaders of the Vote 17 campaign formulated the questions and then surveyed students at the high school and people across the community to determine which questions to ask.
In addition to being studious high school seniors, Kirksey and Plaisir are each spending about 20 hours a week planning the Vote 17 campaign and, now, the candidate forum as well. They’re also planning their futures. Plaisir wants to be an emergency room surgeon. Kirksey wants to be an English teacher and, eventually, run for office. Both will be the first in their families to graduate from college.
Kirksey went to Occupy Boston recently. She didn’t see the contrast between young people trying to reform the system in Lowell and young people protesting elsewhere. In both cases, Kirksey said, she’s inspired to see young people “being involved in something bigger than themselves.”
Both Vote 17 and the Occupy Wall Street movement are trying to change the system for the better, says Plaisir. “We’re both trying to get more people involved.”
In Lowell, Massachusetts, in Zuccotti Park in New York and across the country, it’s clear that young people are not checked out of our democratic system but actively, passionately engaged. Anger at economic inequality is fueling the Occupy Wall Street protests, but so is a sense that the political system is resistant to change. The youth activists in Lowell are combatting cynicism and trying to constructively engage in and change politics for the better. That students are still hitting up against the brick wall of the status quo makes the frustration of their generation very understandable.