ADDISON COUNTY — A majority of Vermont lawmakers and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz find themselves at odds with many town clerks on the subject of a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections.
The amendment — also known as Proposition 5 — would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections, provided they turn 18 before the ensuing general election. The question will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot and has already been approved by two successive sessions of the Vermont General Assembly.
Supporters are touting the measure as a means of increasing voter participation and note that more than a dozen other states have already taken this step.
But area town clerks are concerned that the question is awkwardly worded; is conferring special voting privileges to a very narrow demographic; and is setting the stage for future elections at which 17-year-olds will have to be segregated into a separate pool of voters who will be able to cast ballots on the primary race, but not other referenda reserved for those 18 and older.
“Town clerks are very concerned about this issue,” said Alison Kaiser, president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks & Treasurers Association (VMCTA). “It feels like we have not had enough conversation about it.”
Kaiser, the Stowe town clerk, stressed the VMCTA and its members will remain “completely neutral” on this issue for this Nov. 2 election. But Kaiser summed up the VMTCA’s concerns about the proposed Constitutional amendment in a recent press release.
“While Vermont clerks support voter access, there are concerns with the language as drafted and the process that has yet to be determined,” Kaiser wrote.
Kaiser, Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster and other elections officials contend that the three-paragraph question that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot is unclear and unwieldy. They said many absentee voters have expressed confusion about the question’s language and what a “yes” or “no” vote will produce.
“The Vermont Constitution should not be amended with ambiguous language,” Kaiser wrote.
“My concern is that it is a big thing to change the Constitution, and I don’t think people know enough about (this proposed amendment),” Webster said.
Kaiser is asking that prior to casting their votes on the measure, citizens consider whether:
• “Different rules, applied to different voters, at different elections can actually reduce voter participation.”
• More town clerks should be provided with “clear criteria and guidelines” on implementing the new rule so it can be effectively administered.
• More discussion is needed before changing the Constitution.
In her press release, she did not note that the issue has been discussed by the Legislature for the past two years, has been approved by both houses of the Legislature, and that the VMCTA had the opportunity to help draft the wording.
Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, on the other hand, has noted that similar changes in 12 other states have led to an increase of voter participation and that few problems in those states have been found in implementing the new provisions.
Webster, however, also voiced additional concerns about Proposition 5. For example, she noted Vermont requires an individual to take a “Voter’s Oath” prior to casting a ballot, but does not allow persons under the age of 18 years to take that oath.
“This proposed amendment would change Vermont election law to make voting more inclusive for a small number of people who fall within a two-month window of turning 18 following the primary but on or before the General Election,” Webster wrote in a recent commentary about Proposition 5. “This does not seem fair to the mature, politically engaged 17-year-old who will turn 18 the day after the general election and cannot vote in either election.”
The measure was sponsored by state Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham County. White received the request from some Williston high school students, according to Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. If passed, the change would take effect in time for the 2012 primary.
Markowitz, who will be leaving office at the end of this year, supports the Constitutional amendment as a means of involving more citizens in the voting process.
“Giving a 17-year-old an opportunity to vote in a primary is a good way to engage our electorate,” Markowitz said. “I’m quite supportive of this.”
States that have already implemented their versions of Proposition 5 have reported “no problems at all,” according to Markowitz. She said local elections officials already deal with multiple voting ballots, and she is confident clerks will be able to ensure that 17-year-olds do not vote on referenda for which they are not eligible. The change would require town clerks to keep a separate set of data on their checklists.
“It is clear that this doesn’t give (17-year-olds) the right to vote on anything but the presidential primary,” Markowitz said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is a longtime member of the House Judiciary Committee. He said he will be supporting Proposition 5.
“It is based on access to the ballot box, which is something I favor greatly,” Jewett said. “It creates access and involvement in the electoral process.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]