This commentary is by Sen. Joe Benning, who represents the Caledonia-Orange District in the Vermont Senate. He is also a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Vermont.
Yesterday, Feb. 11, I sat on the Senate floor (virtually, of course) and listened to a debate over a proposed charter change for the town of Brattleboro. My friend and colleague, Sen. Jeanette White, presented the bill. Its genesis began with a group of students in Brattleboro, rightly concerned about current events. She advised us the bill had two components. First, it would grant to 16- and 17 year-olds the right to vote on town issues. Secondly, it would enable folks that age to become select board members and town officials. In support of the bill, some of my Senate colleagues extolled the virtues of empowering youth and giving them incentive to engage in political discourse.
In a flash my mind shot back to the early 1970s with memories of when I, at exactly the same age, was in high school. I, too, was deeply engaged in political discourse. Who couldn’t be? With the Vietnam War raging I was mere months away from being drafted. It was outrageous, we loudly protested, that we could be forced at 18 to fight and die in Vietnam, but we couldn’t vote for or against those sending us there. So we conducted sit-ins, sang songs and carried signs, mostly saying “hooray for our side.” (We even did it in a Catholic school!) And we won. We established the right to vote for, or against, those making the decisions that could send us off to war.
The concept of protesting to obtain rights is certainly not a new thing, even in this country. British citizens who had occupied the original 13 colonies and surrounding territories like the New Hampshire Grants (soon to be Vermont) became very angry when members of Parliament began exacting taxes and fees from the Americas. American subjects were taxed, but none were permitted to hold a seat in Parliament. Their refrain, which galvanized a people into the American Revolution, was: “No taxation without representation!”
With all this swirling in my head, I could understand the rationale sweeping my Senate colleagues into the novelty of supporting this bill. I say “novelty” because I don’t think it has ever been done before. But I suddenly noticed two glitches that blew up any chance I could join in support. The first was what distinguished this measure from the protesters’ causes in 1773 and 1973. The Brattleboro teenagers under 18 who’d become selectboard members were going to be given authority to tax, but they had no responsibility to pay those taxes. It was, in a sense, complete reversal of the concept of “no taxation without representation.” Authority without responsibility is bad precedent.
The second glitch was elimination of a line of demarcation recognizing the legal rights and, more importantly, the legal obligations of those who’ve reached 18. By eliminating that line, there would no longer be justification for refusing the next charter change proposal seeking voting rights for those 13 through 15, or younger. Do they not possess the same desire for political discourse that 16- and 17 year-olds do? My own first recollection of debates around the dinner table began with the appearance of a British band called “The Beatles.” Heady times! I was in kindergarten.
Oddly enough, we’re pursuing this path at the very same time we are seeking to “raise the age” of those subject to adult criminal penalties, after recognizing the human brain doesn’t reach full development before the mid 20s.
So I voted against the bill. I simply cannot support granting authority to those who have no responsibility, especially when that authority requires others to do their bidding. Sorry Brattleboro students, I hope you’ll nevertheless stay engaged.