BY REBECCA BENNETT — It was almost 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 5 when the Hyattsville City Council voted 7 to 4 to pass a charter amendment sponsored by Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) that will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections. The vote came after an hour long public hearing and additional discussion during the council meeting on whether or not the issue should be outright voted on or put on the ballot.
The hearing took place in packed council chambers with standing room only, the majority of speakers being in favor of lowering the voting age. The issue attracted the very young, those who have lived in Hyattsville for decades, and those who live elsewhere but are supportive of the measure. Also present to witness the discussion was a reporter from the New York Times and Maryland State Delegate Alonzo Washington (D-22).
In support of lowering the voting age, Nate Groves said, “I have always had the mentality that if something is wrong, fix it. It’s hard to do that when no one respects your opinion or is listening.”
“When you don’t let younger people vote, it’s like their views are being put down,” Maria said, who is a Northwestern High School junior. “They are being told their views are not legit and that nobody seems to care, so they grow older in a system that they feel doesn’t represent them.”
Sarah Leonard, a University Hills resident and sophomore at Roosevelt High School, came to a meeting in a I am Hyattsville t-shirt. “I think I speak for most of my class when I say that this has encouraged us to be more aware,” the 15-year-old said.
Juwan Blocker, class vice president at Parkdale High School, said, “As a 16 year old, I am very politically active. In our society today, at 16 years old, you can get a job permit and actually start working. You can get a drivers permit and actually starting driving. In a court of law, at 16 years old … you’re treated as an adult. If we’re put in adult positions, we should be able to vote.”
Jan. 5 public hearing on lowering the voting age
“I’m not here to guarantee that … every decision that young voters, as well as their older neighbors, make will be great, but that’s no reason not to give them the right,” Hyattsville resident Flawn Williams said.
“I myself was a very politically active 16 year old in 1966,” Williams said. “I’m very happy to see several people in that same image here in the room.”
By far the youngest resident to weigh in Monday evening was 9-year-old Evan Hunt, who had to stand on a stool to speak at the podium. “All it is, is choosing the right person to do the job correctly. Some people may think teens are the craziest thing since the mullet,” he said, rocking his very own mullet. “But, I am not some people, and I don’t think teens are crazy.”
His dad, Councilmember Tim Hunt (Ward 3), said the matter should go to referendum instead. “It doesn’t seek to right a wrong … it’s about whether or not it’s a good idea for Hyattsville to have children of a certain age cast meaningful ballots in municipal elections.”
New Hyattsville resident Jamie Mcgonnigal, community director at a company that helps make polling place and ballot information available online, said he was excited at the idea that his kids could grow up somewhere they can participate earlier in the democratic process.
When a neighboring city was the first to lower its voting age, a member of the former Takoma Park voting rights task force said things went on as usual. “The world did not come to an end. 16-year-olds came to the polls, they voted. The trash still came next week. Police still worked. Fire still worked.”
One Hamilton Street resident, who was against lowering the voting age, said she just moved back to Hyattsville after nine years away for college. “I just felt like 18 was considered to be adult. … To me, it’s just highlighting a lot of contradictions in our society,” she said, citing that 16-year-olds can’t buy houses, but have to pay taxes.
Hyattsville resident Shirley Fischer said, “I have looked to see other teenagers coming to see what is going on in the city. Knowing this was coming up, they haven’t come and participated.”
“You don’t see students in the city council meetings, because we’re not aware of it. We’re working on awareness,” Jocelyn Nolasco said, who is a member of the Prince George’s County student government representing Northwestern and Parkdale High Schools. “I know our students are ready and would be honored to take on this opportunity.”
“Everyone in the voting age range has the same flaws as the 16 to 17 year old range,” Stuart Eisenberg said in favor of lowering the voting age, who also joked about a “clean your room” amendment.
After the public hearing and a short break, the council meeting began. Other council business had to be taken care of first before the council could take any action on the matter at hand. Hours later, a number of people were still waiting for the council’s decision.
The meeting agenda set the council up to first vote on the issue as an advisory referendum, which needed eight votes to pass. If that motion did not pass, a second motion to vote on outright lowering the voting age to 16 years old was scheduled, which only needed six votes to pass. The council spent time asking hypothetical questions of the city’s lawyer trying to gauge all of the options.
Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) said she talked to many of the people in her ward. “What they could agree on was that it go to referendum, and so therefore, I support the referendum. And that’s it.”
Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4), who wanted 16- and 17-year-olds to vote on the referendum, said he otherwise didn’t see himself supporting the referendum.
Councilmember Shani Warner (Ward 2), who was in support of the lowering the voting age, said it was the council’s job to make this decision. “We don’t put it on the residents … when we do a lot of important things that relate to the structure of our government.”
Haba said, “The [young people] that came tonight, spoke and did a terrific job.” He went on to compare their performance to adult voters. “That’s all I needed. I will be voting for this motion.”
“I personally find it incredibly difficult to look these [young] residents in the eye, and with their smart, articulate and passionate arguments, deny them the right to vote.”
The motion to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote passed. Those voting against the motion were Councilmembers Robert Croslin (Ward 2), Tim Hunt (Ward 3), Paula Perry (Ward 4), and Joseph Solomon (Ward 5).
According to the council proceedings, 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to vote in the next city election, which is scheduled for May 5.