By Guy Page
This week, Gov. Scott is expected to decide whether or not to veto H.386, allowing underage (16- and 17-year-old) Brattleboro residents to vote in local elections and get elected to local boards.
The proposed charter change explicitly gives teenagers the right to do on behalf of the Town something state law otherwise prohibits them: the right to enter into contracts.
For example, under H.386, a 16-year-old Brattleboro resident serving on the selectboard could sign a contract to hire a police chief or buy a multi-million dollar piece of property.
It’s explicit in the bill.
“A youth voter who is elected to a Town office shall be capable of performing all duties and exercising all powers of that office, including the formation and execution of contracts relating to the office or official duties,” H.386 states.
Yet at the same time, contracts signed by Vermonters under 18 are not legally binding, except in very narrow situations such as the buying of some annuities.
Can the Legislature carve out an underage right to sign contracts on the behalf of thousands of other people, while denying the right to sign personal contracts?
Scott last year successfully vetoed a similar under-age Brattleboro voting bill, H.361. His veto statement said lowering the voting ages contradicts other legislative decisions to raise the legal age, including the age of adult accountability for crimes, to as high as 22 years old.
Although Scott didn’t cite the contract problem, opposing senators did. To rectify that problem, Sen. Ruth Hardy claimed in the May 8 floor debate on H.386 that “our legislative Council researched this question and found that it is likely that youth voters would be able to do so.”
However – Vermont Daily Chronicle was unable to find any written record, or verbal explanation, of this finding.
The closest thing to a discussion was a cryptic reference during a May 4 Senate Government Operations discussion preceding its decision to send H.386 to the floor. In anticipation of pushback from some senators, Sen. Becca White (D-Windsor) asked the committee’s lawyer what kind of charter amendments don’t become law.
“Is there a trend in what we don’t approve, or maybe not us as a legislature, but doesn’t become law?,” White asked Legislative Counsel Tucker Anderson.
“Charters or provisions of Charters that are facially unconstitutional typically do not survive the legislative process,” Anderson replied.
“And this would not be an example of that,” White said.
“Correct,” Anderson said.
Anderson offered no explanation — and White gave him little chance to offer one.
“That makes sense,” White quickly responded. “So it’s very rare to have a charter that is not deemed unconstitutional to become one.”
The conversation then veered off in another direction. Furthermore neither Anderson nor anyone else offered written testimony, in either House or Senate committee discussion, about the contract question. In fact, almost the only non-procedural testimony received was from current or recent high school students eager to receive the vote.
If vetoed by the governor, H.386 may have a tough time getting a ⅔ majority in the Senate. It passed the Senate 18-10.
“What I cannot get over is a 16- or 17-year-old serving on an elected council,” Sen. Tom Chittenden (D-Chittenden) said. “I don’t think they should serve.” First, a good lawyer could “make hay” of any board decisions put into effect by a minor. Also, making controversial decisions invites severe criticism — even death threats — on social media, and teenagers shouldn’t be exposed to that, Chittenden said.
On the other hand White, a one-time non-voting high school representative to a school board, called the current adults-only voting and serving scheme “an oligarchy of older Vermonters.”
But Republican majority leader Sen. Randy Brock said the bill flies in the face of other non-adult prohibitions.
“There are some things we don’t allow 16- and 17-year-olds to do,” Brock said — serving in the military and drinking, for instance. “This is not the place for this kind of experimentation.”
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.