Takoma Park Promotes the Vote: Will More Cities, Campuses and Organizations Take Action?

by Rob Richie // Published April 16, 2013




Last night, the Takoma Park city council passed a charter amendment by a 6-1 vote on first reading that, if approved when before the council again in the coming month, will be in the best tradition of cities and states leading the nation in advancing voting rights. It would establish same-day voter registration and extend voting rights to residents after they turn 16 and after incarceration. Here's why we think it's important.

FairVote's motto is "respect for every vote and every voice." Our reforms are grounded in the belief that bringing more people to the table is the best way to strengthen democracy. Elections with high turnout, real voter choice and fair representation are a nonpartisan way to help representative democracy in our nation, states and cities.

Although changing the Constitution should be an option, most of our reforms can be won by statute, such as the: National Popular Vote Plan to guarantee election of the winner of the most popular votes in presidential elections; fair voting forms of proportional representation to elect Congress and state and local legislators; ranked choice voting(instant runoff) for our single winner offices; and voting access reforms designed to provide for high rates of participation with election integrity.

The one proposed constitutional amendment we highlight is establishing an affirmative right to vote. Adding such language to the Constitution would underscore our nation's commitment to the right to vote and raise the level of scrutiny to any laws that fail to uphold voting rights.

Guided by that vision, we have designed our Promote Our Vote project to encourage immediate action in cities, campuses and organizations to put life into the goal of a constitutional right to vote through concrete action to boost turnout. As underscored by our report  on mayoral elections, single digit voter turnout is all too common in city elections, with particularly stark disparities as measured by race, income, education and age.

Last year, we did a voter survey in a hotly contested special election in our hometown of Takoma Park (MD) that showed remarkable differences in who participated. Turnout was up overall from the most recent mayoral election, but was still less than 20% of registered voters. Furthermore, we found that: people of color were 74% of residents, but only 35% of voters; younger adults were 42% of residents but only 7% of voters; and people with graduate or professional degrees were 56% of voters, but only 10% of residents.

Historically, states and cities have been the laboratories of democracy in expanding suffrage and voter access. Promote Our Vote advances resolutions  for cities, campuses and organizations to endorse an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution and commit to concrete actions to improve voter turnout, protect voter access when threatened and consider expansion of suffrage rights.

Takoma Park city councilor Tim Male liked the right to vote resolution. Finding a strong ally in fellow councilor Seth Grimes and support from Mayor Bruce Williams, he introduced it to his council colleagues. In so doing, the council decided to move forward on changes for this November's election. The council last night voted to approve the first reading of a charter amendment that would establish same day voter registration in city elections, extend voting rights to more people with felony convictions and make Takoma Park the first city in the United State to join what has become an international movement to extend suffrage rights to people after they turn age 16. The council may also form a task force to consider other ways to increase turnout such as a revision of the landlord code to ensure candidates have greater access to speak with tenants in apartment buildings.

These ideas came directly from councilors' experience. After Grimes introduced Election Day registration, councilors talked about spending time on the campaign trail with residents only to find out they weren't registered and it was past the registration cutoff date. With Maryland this year adopting a new law to establish same day registration during early voting, it was all the easier for the city to go one step farther. Another councilor talked about residents who wanted to vote, but could not due to being on parole or under supervision.

The idea of ensuring candidate access to residents in apartment buildings grew from candidates discussing how much easier it was to engage with homeowners in single-family dwellings than tenants in apartment buildings that were closed to them. It turns out that Minnesota has a law with proven procedures for establishing candidate access to apartments in campaign season.

The proposal to extend voting rights to people after they turn 16 may surprise some readers, but the latest research is a revelation. All evidence suggests that cities will increase turnout by allowing citizens to cast their first vote after turning 16. The reason is simple. Many people at 16 and 17 have lived in their communities for years and are taking government classes in high school. That combination results in more people exercising their first chance to vote if they are 16 or 17 than if they are unable to vote until they have left home and school.

Keep in mind that a voting age of 18 means that many people won't get a chance to vote in city election until they are nearly 20. A detailed study of voting age and voters in Denmark found that 18-year-olds were far more likely to cast their "first vote" than 19-year-olds, and that every month of extra age in those years resulted in a decline in "first vote" turnout.

Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections will enable them to vote before leaving home and high school, and establish a life-long habit of voting.

Austria is among a growing number of nations like Argentina, Germany and the United Kingdom that have extended voting rights to people at 16 for national, regional or local elections. Evidence from Austria confirms that extending voting rights to people after they turn 16 promotes higher turnout for first-time voters and over time. Austria's experience also shows that 16- and 17-years-olds are ready for voting as far as making choices that accurately reflect their views.

Long-time backers of a lower voting age, like the National Youth Rights Association, make a fairness argument as well. Turning 16 has special significance in our culture. At age 16, we can drive, pay taxes and for the first time work without any restriction on hours. Many states already allow citizens under 18 to vote in Democratic and Republican primaries for president, Congress and governor. Many states like Maryland allow people to start registering to vote at 16, making it administratively easy to extend voting rights.

The idea has taken hold here. Testimony at a public hearing was overwhelmingly positive, the local Gazette endorsed a lower voting with a long editorial and letters of support have come in from our state senator Jamie Raskin (see letter), Congressman Keith Ellison (see letter) and leading scholars on youth engagement, such as CIRCLE's invaluable Peter Levine (see letter). I have little doubt that the practice will quickly spread. Indeed, already the mayor of Orange, Ohio has taken note of Takoma Park's potential action, and the one skeptic on Takoma Park's city council came up with excellent ideas of how to introduce local government and voting to young people if the amendment were adopted.

Democracy is too important to be a spectator sport. Let's vote, of course, but also consider getting directly involved in reform work. FairVote Action presents action ideas for all of our reform ideas. If you like the idea of your city, campus or organization having the kind of substantive, generative conversation on the right to vote that has taken place in Takoma Park, visit Promote Our Vote, look at its resources and take action.