The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Opinion

July 20, 2013

Green: Let voters decide on candidate age limit

HUNTSVILLE — If you read Brandon Scott’s article, “Council members OK age requirements for council,” in Wednesday’s paper, you probably noticed the headline was wrong — council members didn’t OK anything Tuesday night. Our mistake. But most of the council did seem to agree that there was no need to give voters the option to lower the age of a candidate for city office from 21 to 18.

In my opinion, their arguments were misguided. The idea that all people 18 to 20 years old aren’t fit to hold public office is patently false.

Most cities and counties in Texas allow 18-year-olds to run for public office. Huntsville is one of the few exceptions. While the city’s charter review committee was in favor of allowing voters to approve this charter amendment, council members this week decided they knew best.

While it may be true that many adults in that age group aren’t fit for council, neither are many other people who actually qualify under the current charter. The point of having elections is to pick the most qualified candidate. If a person from the 18-to-20 age range actually tossed his hat into the ring, voters would still have to decide who the most qualified candidate is. Some of those young adults actually win.

For example, John Tyler Hammons, 19, won his race for mayor in Muskogee, Okla., in 2008, as did at least 12 other 18- to 20-year-olds running for office in recent years. They didn’t win on a fluke, either. Most of them have won re-election and are currently in office and have served an average of 6.5 years apiece.

Several other states, including the state of Texas, disagree with Huntsville’s council as well. Hawaii, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin all allow 18-year-olds to run for local offices. Many allow under-21s to run for state office in states in diverse regions of the country, including Louisiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. So if a 20-year-old were elected to the legislature in, say, New Hampshire, he would be able to vote on the state’s budget, but not on a water rate ordinance in Huntsville, Texas, if our council had its way.

Even in Huntsville, 18- to 20-year-olds can run for local office, just not City Council. The age requirement to run for Huntsville ISD’s school board is 18. So HISD considers recent high school grads fit to approve new teacher hires, set the district’s budget and tax rate, and make other decisions that affect Huntsville residents and their children. But they can’t make their case for a council run.

Last Tuesday, council member Keith Olson said, “I don’t think anybody else as a business owner would take someone 18 years old and give them free reign of their checkbook,” before saying that no one he’s talked to would vote for someone that young.

What Mr. Olson and the people he’s talked to might not know is that there are many 18- to 20-year-olds who have not only run successful businesses, but have created their own.  

Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook at age 20; Richard Branson started Virgin Records at 20; Farrah Grey is the youngest office-holder on Wall Street after becoming a millionaire at 14. Adam Hildreth, Sean Belnich, and Ashley Qualls also earned their first million dollars before their 16th birthdays. Shree Bose, 18, has been twice recognized by President Barack Obama for drugs she’s developed that scientists say might lead to a cure for cancer.

The problem is that there is no bright-line as to why an 18-year-old is less fit than a 21-year-old. There aren’t any logical reasons, and council last Tuesday cited none, as to why people 18 shouldn’t run or why Huntsville’s voters shouldn’t be allowed to decide if they’re worth their salt. Maybe council members believe 18- to 20-year-old voters aren’t smart enough to do that, either.

Let’s listen to the charter review committee, composed of adults, all apparently over the age of 21, who unanimously agreed to recommend that council allow voters to consider lowering the candidacy age requirement.

Another proposed change to the charter drew comments from council that seemed to take another shot at their younger constituents. The charter review committee considered recommendations from citizens to reduce the size of council and to limit or eliminate the number of at-large seats. Eliminating the at-large seats — filled by elected leaders who represent the whole city — would leave only ward seats, filled by people chosen by the voters in their home ward or district. Council is now composed four at-large members, four ward members and a mayor. (Currently one at-large seat is vacant with the recent resignation of James Fitch.)

Many council members said last Tuesday they think that the more at-large positions, the merrier. But eliminating ward positions would quash not only student and youth representation but the representation of minority communities and low-income families.

Mayor pro tem and at-large council member Don Johnson said he believes an all at-large council would make for “the best city.” That may as well mean, “the best city for the biggest demographic.” Traditionally, Precinct 2 comprises the largest voting bloc. An all at-large council would likely be made up of the members of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Huntsville. The size and make-up of the current council already seems to ensure that. Two of three at-large council members live at Elkins Lake. Maybe we should be looking at a reduction of at-large seats.

Implicit in council comments is the notion that wards don’t deserve adequate representation if the voters there don’t turn out to vote.

This is the case in Huntsville — the large minority and student neighborhoods, like those in wards 2 and 3, have historically lower voter turnout than other wards and that arguably results in less effective representation. Ronald Allen, Ward 3 council member, hit the nail on the head when he said the voice of the minority would be taken away if the council was made up of all at-large positions.

Ward 1 council member Joe Emmett seemed to disagree with the opposite suggestion — that council be composed of only ward seats — saying that would split the council into representatives of “interest groups,” as it was paraphrased in Wednesday’s article.

Interest groups? You mean constituencies and diversity that create more than one overpowering voice? A smaller council of at least mathematically proportional representation might make certain that all perspectives were heard.

The idea of democracy is not just one person, one vote. The concept of our form of government is to allow the majority to choose while protecting the rights of the minority.

So my answer to Mr. Olson’s question, “What’s wrong with the current council makeup?” is this: It’s out of touch with the younger generation and the diversity of the town it represents.

 

Stephen Green is a part-time reporter for The Huntsville Item and editor of The Houstonian, the student newspaper at Sam Houston State University. The opinions stated here do not reflect the editorial position of The Huntsville Item.

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