The College Park City Council voted this week to allow 18-year-olds to run for public office, opening up the opportunity for students at the University of Maryland to seek council seats or the mayor’s office.
Under the new rules, adopted in a 5 to 3 vote Tuesday, anyone older than 17 who has lived in College Park for at least a year can seek elected office in the city, which is home to U-Md.’s flagship campus. The rule would allow U-Md. students who did not grow up in College Park to run for office by their sophomore year.
The city previously required candidates for mayor to be at least 25 and candidates for council to be at least 21.
Student leaders at U-Md. wanted the student body to have the opportunity to serve in public office and the old requirements “effectively cut out three quarters of the student population from being able to run for council and mayor,” said Samantha Zwerling, president of the U-Md. Student Government Association.
Council member Marcus Afzali introduced a bill in December seeking the age limit change, saying that “all adult residents of our city should have the same rights and responsibilities.” Council members Robert Day and Patrick Wojahn joined the effort.
Students and council members credited ongoing cooperation between the university and the city as a significant element of the decision. Students already are involved in day-to-day operations of local government through committees, and the university has extended its police jurisdiction to monitor off-campus student activity. Advocates saw this change as the next step in bridging “historic tensions” between the campus and the city, Wojahn said.
“We still feel like there’s some sort of divide between the students and long-term residents,” said Catherine McGrath, the student liaison between U-Md. student leadership and the City Council. “We thought this would be a great way to further engage students in city politics. . . . We have just as much a long-term interest in this community as a resident would.”
McGrath said many teenagers don’t have the experience to run for office, but she said that those who believe they can ably serve should have the chance to do so.
Some College Park residents, including Suchitra Balachandran, president of the West College Park Civic Association, opposed the change. Balachandran said U-Md. students typically have not lived in the city long enough to understand it or the greater off-campus community.
“It is neither wise nor prudent to amend our charter to allow an 18-year-old from another part of the state or even from out of state to run for Council and presume to be able to represent residents of a district that he or she has had very little time to get to know,” Balachandran wrote in an open letter to the City Council.
Balachandran proposed that a decrease in the minimum age should be accompanied by an increase in the amount of time a person must live in the city before running.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Jeremy McCoy told the House of Delegates that such a change “would be constitutionally suspect” because it would deny equal protection of the law and would impinge upon the right to vote, according to a letter included in the council’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
Day said he hopes that the new rules inspire other changes in College Park and beyond.
“Hopefully we start that ripple effect, knocking down some walls, like Robert Kennedy said,” he said. “We stood up, we made a stand, and I think it’s the right one.”