Charter change: a closer look
- Published: October 17, 2019
Should 16- and 17-year-olds be able to vote in Village elections? Should noncitizen residents be enfranchised for Yellow Springs offices and issues? Should the term of Yellow Springs’ mayor be lengthened from two to four years?
Village voters will decide these issues at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 5. All three matters are proposed as amendments to the Village of Yellow Springs Charter, and will appear as a single “yes/no” vote on the ballot.
In the run-up to November, some villagers have voiced confusion and concern about the proposed expansion of local voting rights, as well as their “bundling” on the ballot with the change to the length of the mayor’s term.
“Each issue should stand on its own,” Dean Pallotta, who is currently running as a write-in candidate for Council, commented at a James A. McKee Association meeting on the topic last month.
Audience members at the McKee meeting, the first public forum on the issue outside of Village Council meetings, also said they were skeptical of, or opposed to, proposals to lower the local voting age and include noncitizen residents in Village voting.
Of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, Sue Abendroth commented, “They don’t have a stake in the village. … They would be voting on things they don’t have a stake in and won’t experience the consequences of that vote.”
And according to Jerry Sutton, citizenship, not residence status, is the appropriate precondition for voting in Yellow Springs.
“It has always been my understanding that citizenship is the sine qua non of voting,” he said.
But Council President Brian Housh, who presented the charter changes at the McKee meeting, defended the proposed voting rights as progressive and inclusive measures tied to Yellow Springs values.
“I feel inclusionary voting is at the heart of our community values; that’s why I support it,” he said.
“It’s really important that as many people in our community that have a stake have an opportunity to participate” through voting, Housh added.
This week, the News takes a closer look at the proposed charter changes and their implications for Yellow Springs.
Expansion of local voting rights
Local voters are being asked to consider amendments to two sections of the Village Charter. The first amendment consists of a new sentence added to the General Election Laws section of the charter, reading as follows:
“All residents of the Village of Yellow Springs who are 16 years of age and older shall be electors and are eligible to vote for Yellow Springs local issues and elected officials pursuant to the home rule power and granted by this Charter.”
While Yellow Springs has previously followed Ohio state law — which specifies that Ohio residents must be U.S. citizens and 18 years old or older on or before the day of the next general election in order to register to vote in the state — with this amendment, the Village expands local voting rights to two new groups of village residents: 16- and 17-year-olds, and noncitizen residents of Yellow Springs.
The wording of the amendment explicitly lowers the voting age to 16 and implicitly extends voting rights to noncitizen local residents. According to Village Solicitor Chris Conard, who helped draft the language of the amendment, the phrase “all residents” allows those who have lived in Yellow Springs for 30 or more days, regardless of citizenship status, to vote.
“The use of the word ‘resident’ has legal import. A resident can be a citizen, but not all residents are citizens,” Conard clarified in an interview with the News this week.
Asked by the News whether “all residents of the Village of Yellow Springs who are 16 years of age and older” was sufficiently clear to signal to voters the amendment’s twofold purpose, Conard said he believed the phrase was clear, characterizing the wording of the amendment as “plain language.”
While in earlier discussions on the topic this spring and summer Council stated that the amendment would refer to legal residents, Council President Brian Housh clarified at the McKee meeting and in subsequent interviews with the News that undocumented people are not barred from voting in local elections — but, in his view, they would be unlikely to do so.
“We intentionally did not say you have to be a legal resident,” Housh said at the McKee meeting, referring to the amendment’s wording. “In this community, you should have a say.”
While that is the spirit of the amendment, in practice, Housh anticipated that noncitizens exercising the vote in local elections would likely be legal U.S. residents.
“People that would typically vote in local elections would be legally here,” he said at the McKee meeting.
“If you are undocumented, you’re not likely to register to vote because you would not want to risk ICE coming after you,” he added, referring to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Under the proposed amendment, younger and noncitizen voters would only be eligible to vote in Yellow Springs elections, including Village Council, Village mayor and local initiatives and referendums. The amendment does not pertain to Miami Township races or local school board elections. Nor does it empower younger and noncitizen voters to legally cast a ballot in county, state or federal elections.
The amendment would also have the effect of expanding political participation in another way. As eligible voters, younger people and noncitizen residents would be able to run for political office.
“We have no language that would limit who could run for political office,” Conard said at a July 1 Council meeting on the topic.
“Home rule power”
Under Ohio state law, local municipalities have wide latitude to pass measures pertinent to their own political subdivision, provided these measures supplement, but don’t contravene, state laws. That is the “home rule power” referred to in the amendment. So while the charter change doesn’t affect voting rights outside of the village, it does expand them within the boundaries of Yellow Springs.
The home rule power claimed by the charter change is also the reason the amendment is unlikely to be challenged by the state of Ohio, in the opinion of Solicitor Conard.
“I’d be surprised if the state had a legal challenge,” he told the News this week.
Greene County Board of Elections, which oversees elections in Yellow Springs and is under the authority of Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, approved the issue’s placement on the Yellow Springs ballot. Village officials, including Conard, met with the county election board in August, and Conard sent the board’s attorney a seven-page legal opinion regarding the amendment. Housh told the News that he also spoke directly with Sec. LaRose on the matter.
“The fact that the Greene County Board of Elections placed it on the ballot is indicative of the fact that this is under home rule,” Conard said.
Responding to a question from the News this week, Housh said that the Village does not plan to use taxpayer money to defend any potential future legal challenges related to the amendment, should the charter change pass. Rather, the Village would use its own solicitor under its existing retainer agreement or explore pro bono legal options, he said.
Mayor’s term, and “bundling”
The second amendment before local voters, located in the Mayor section of the Village Charter, changes the length of the mayor’s term from two years to four, and specifies that the new term length would go into effect in 2021.
The mayor’s term has been two years since the Village Charter establishing the current Council-manager form of government was first drafted in 1950. Since then, a majority of Yellow Springs mayors have served at least two terms, based on a review of News archives, with the Village’s most recent former mayor, David Foubert, serving a whopping 13 consecutive terms. Yellow Springs’ current mayor, Pam Conine, is running unopposed for re-election in November.
The proposed charter change will not affect the length of Conine’s second term, as it will not go into effect until the end of that term.
The two amendments are distinct — yet voters must indicate a single “yes/no” vote encompassing both. The bundling of the two charter changes was the result of a procedural error and does not reflect Village Council’s intention, Council members have stated publicly.
Council unanimously passed the charter changes in a single emergency ordinance on July 15. The ordinance included an exhibit that mirrors the format of the issue on the ballot.
Clerk of Council Judy Kintner wrote in her Aug. 19 clerk’s report that she “did not realize, and so did not convey to Council, that those items could be split out for separate votes.”
“What has happened unintentionally is that Council has put two charter amendments on the ballot bundled as one,” Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen stated at Council’s Aug. 19 meeting, after the amendments had already been submitted to Greene County Board of Elections.
Council was not legally able to retract the amendment, so has decided to go ahead with the vote.
Voters should weigh the merits of both amendments before casting their votes, according to Housh.
“If you don’t agree with both [amendments], you should vote ‘no,’” Housh advised at the McKee meeting.
Council did not consider separating the two aspects of the voting rights amendment, Housh clarified at the meeting.
If passed, the charter changes would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and would pertain to the next round of Village elections in 2021.
If the changes fail to pass this November, Council would likely place the two amendments as separate items on the March 17, 2020, ballot, according to Housh.
To Yellow Springs Mayor Pam Conine, lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections is a “great idea.”
A retired teacher who taught for 30 years in Yellow Springs, Conine said that anything schools and communities can do to help young people become “lifelong voters” has her support.
Local students are interested in and knowledgeable about their community, according to Conine.
“When I was a teacher at McKinney [Middle School], students were anxious to talk about local issues,” she said.
Local parent Cindy Sieck, who has a son at Yellow Springs High School and a daughter in college, agreed.
“I see our kids as very engaged. They know what’s going on. Living in a town this size, Council members, commission members and others are their neighbors,” she said.
But other villagers expressed skepticism about lowering the local voting age. At last month’s McKee meeting, Peggy Erskine commented of 16- and 17-year-olds, “I just think their interest is not there, and they’re very easily swayed at that age.”
Others at the McKee meeting emphasized that local schools would need to expand their civics curriculum and start preparing students earlier to accommodate a change in local voting age. Council members have said they would work with local educators to do so.
On the issue of extending local voting rights to noncitizen residents, Council member Lisa Kreeger said this week that she viewed the measure as a widening of democratic participation in Yellow Springs.
“It would be good for people who live here and contribute to our community to have a chance to vote,” she said.
Like Housh, she emphasized the issue as a test of Yellow Springs values.
“It has to do with our values as a community. We have to dig deeper,” she said.
That sentiment has been expressed in some form by all Council members during discussions of the issue this spring and summer.
But the proposal to give noncitizens voting power in Yellow Springs elections strikes some villagers as the wrong approach to inclusiveness.
Sutton, in a follow-up interview with the News, said while he supports civic participation by all local residents, such as writing letters to the editor or attending Council meetings, he believes that voting should be reserved for U.S. citizens.
“It they want to vote, they need to take the next step,” he said of local legal residents.
He added that doing so is a “personal thing,” and he respects the right of someone to decide not to become a U.S. citizen.
Sue Abendroth made a similar point at the McKee meeting.
“I honestly believe that citizenship requires rights and responsibilities that belong to citizens. It has to mean something. It has always meant something,” she said.
Dave Turner stated that he was “philosophically uncomfortable” with the Village’s public support of “people who are breaking the law” by being in the country illegally.
But he said he found the proposal relatively harmless overall.
“I’m uncomfortable with it, but I don’t think it will do much harm, and may do some good,” he said.
Others at the meeting described the voting rights amendment as innocuous or unimportant.
Bob Baldwin described the measure as “feel-good legislation” with little relevance to the village.
“Yellow Springs has a raft of problems. This is not one of them,” he said.
On the matter of changing the mayor’s term from two to four years, several McKee meeting audience members indicated support for the measure, as well as frustration that it was bundled with the voting change.
“I don’t want to say ‘no’ to the mayor,” Pallotta said, but the format of the vote would probably lead him to do so, he added.
Don Hollister, in a follow-up interview with the News, said he was generally supportive of two-year terms for local elected officials.
“I think everyone should be up in two years,” he said.
He might vote “yes” on the mayor term extension, he said, but he didn’t feel the longer term was really needed in Yellow Springs, where mayors have historically been elected more than once, effectively serving terms of four or more years.
But Council member Kreeger, who proposed lengthening the mayor’s term, sees it differently.
Elected to Council for the first time in 2017, Kreeger, who is running for re-election, said she experienced a steep learning curve that made her appreciate how short a time on the job two years constitutes.
“I’m a great Council person now, but I had a lot to learn,” Kreeger said.
According to Kreeger, that learning curve, combined with proposals to expand the role of mayor’s court, means that the longer term better fits the realities of the mayor’s job.
Current Mayor Pam Conine, who is running unopposed for mayor, agrees.
While the proposed change won’t affect her next term, it builds needed stability into a role that is surprisingly complex and getting more so, Conine said.
“I’ve been in the job for two years, and I’m still learning so much every day,” she said.
The Yellow Springs mayor is “unique” in Ohio, in being the head of the local judiciary, she said — in other words, mayor’s court. That role has an especially steep learning curve, she believes.
Most mayors in Ohio serve four-year terms, according to Conine, who has researched the issue. The Ohio Revised Code specifies this term length for city and village mayors.
‘Vote 16’ and other national context
If Yellow Springs voters approve the charter changes in November, the village would join a handful of other municipalities around the country who have expanded voting rights to more members of their communities than traditionally qualify to vote.
In 2013, Takoma Park, Md., became the first U.S. municipality to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 for municipal elections. An ethnically and racially diverse city of 18,000 located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Takoma Park had previously extended the vote to noncitizen residents in 1993.
Two other Maryland cities subsequently lowered the voting age. (Maryland, like Ohio, is a home rule state with legislative latitude at the local level.) And in 2016, Berkeley, Calif., lowered the voting age to 16 for school board elections only.
Two U.S. states, California and Oregon, are currently considering proposals to lower the voting age statewide to 17 and 16, respectively. And in Washington, D.C., a bill to lower the voting age to 16 is currently being considered by D.C. Council. If passed, that bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in federal elections — a first.
Last March, a U.S. House representative proposed a 16-year-old voting age amendment to the House Democrats’ voting rights bill. The measure failed by a wide margin to pass.
Those in favor of “Vote 16,” as the national movement to lower the voting age is known, see it as the next logical step to the 1971 amendment to the U.S. Constitution that lowered the voting age nationwide from 21 to 18.
“Vote 16” activists say high-schoolers are affected disproportionately by current issues such as gun violence and climate change. And they point out that teenage activists are taking the national and even international stage on these issues.
“While the upheaval of the 1960s was centered on college campuses, today’s activism is often found in high schools, and that shift has informed voting-age campaigns,” according to a May, 19, 2019, New York Times article on the topic.
Advocacy organization Vote16USA argues in a position paper that younger voters are intellectually capable of voting, have a stake in contemporary issues and can benefit from making voting a lifelong habit.
Advocates also point to higher turnout rates among 16- and 17-year-old voters. In Takoma Park, in the first election after younger voters were enfranchised, turnout rates among 16- and 17-year-old voters were significantly higher than that of the overall population, according to information compiled by a voting rights advocacy group.
Housh said he became aware of the “Vote 16” movement about two years ago, while researching local gun control legislation. He mentioned “Vote 16” in a speech to Yellow Springs High School students during a gun control school walk-out last year, and got a roar of positive response. That, combined with subsequent conversations with individual students, convinced him to pursue the proposal locally.
Housh has championed the issue in Council, and broadened the proposal in Council’s June 17 discussion to include noncitizen resident voting as a result of his research into voting rights.
Separate from lowering the voting age, several U.S. municipalities currently allow noncitizen residents to vote in some local elections. Chicago and, more recently, San Francisco, permit noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections. Around 10 municipalities in Maryland, including the previously mentioned Takoma Park, have enfranchised noncitizen residents. And other cities are considering the step, or have passed voting laws at a local level that require state approval.
Meanwhile, at least one state has moved against such measures. In Florida, a state constitutional amendment specifically requiring U.S. citizenship as necessary for voting has been approved for the 2020 ballot.
Citizenship is linked with voting in most people’s minds, but, in fact, noncitizen voting was common earlier in the country’s history, according to a Nov. 1, 2018, article in The Nation. Nationally, noncitizen voting persisted until 1926, when Arkansas became the last U.S. state to end the practice.
How would it work here?
But how would noncitizen voting and voting by 16- and 17-year-olds work in Yellow Springs?
According to Greene County Board of Elections Director Llyn McCoy this week, the county will work with the Ohio secretary of state to develop a process, should the charter amendments pass in November. The Village of Yellow Springs would likely be responsible for developing the requisite forms, as well as registering the new voters and maintaining separate voting rolls. The cost to the county and Village would be negligible, she anticipated. If paper ballots are used for these voters, the cost incurred by Yellow Springs would be 45 cents per ballot, she added.
While the details have yet to be worked out, McCoy expressed confidence that the county can accommodate the change.
“I don’t have any doubt that we can do it,” she said.
In Takoma Park, the city clerk currently maintains separate voter rolls, in the form of an Excel spreadsheet, for noncitizen resident voters. Because 16- and 17-year-olds can register to vote in Maryland, the city doesn’t need to keep voter rolls for that group.
The cost and the expense is negligible, according to Takoma Park City Clerk Jessie Carpenter in an interview with the News.
“It’s just incorporated into our practice. It’s not much of a burden,” she said.
In terms of actual numbers of new voters, the impact on Yellow Springs elections would be modest. There are 102 residents aged 16 and 17 currently living in Yellow Springs, according to a 2017 U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimate. The number of noncitizen residents is unknown.
But while the numerical impact would be relatively small, the message Yellow Springs would send to its own residents and those of surrounding communities would be large, according to Housh.
“At the end of the day, it’s deciding do you want to include more people to vote, or not,” he said at the McKee meeting.
“I think inclusionary voting is the right side of this,” he added.
Local voters will have to chance this Nov. 5 to say whether or not they agree.