Council to weigh hate crime punishments, extending vote to teens, non-citizens

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A quartet of Human Relations Commission recommendations will come before council Tuesday night, as elected officials will once again weigh whether to push for extended voting rights, or wait for citizens to make the case for non-citizen and teen election participation.

This council has once before, in 2018, declined to lead the charge on voting expansion, deferring to residents. They did express support for the measures and declared their intention to place them on the ballot if a citizen-led effort comes forward.

A quick look at items up for consideration:

16-year-old voting age limit

It was only in 1971 that the voting age in the U.S. was lowered from 21 to 18, per the 26th Amendment. In 2016, Generation Citizen, a national group, approached Boulder’s Youth Opportunities Advisory Board to propose a local push to lower the voting age further.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds in Boulder County can pre-register to vote. State law does not explicitly forbid those under 18 from voting, so home-rule municipalities (like Boulder) can set their own limits. However, it may be easier at the county level due to logistics of elections.

YOAB conducted research on the proposal and presented its findings to the HRC. Among the positives, they found that lower voting ages can encourage civic participation throughout life. Teens also are affected by local policies, YOAB argued: They earn wages, pay taxes, drive cars. And, on average, scientific studies have shown that they have the same political knowledge and skills as 21-year-olds.

Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, have a lower voting age limit, as well as Estonia, Germany, Austria, Brazil, Argentina and Scotland. Seventy percent of Berkeley voters passed the measure in 2016; implementation is set for 2020. Current efforts are underway in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Non-citizen voting

Noncitizen voting was the norm until the 1920s, when new laws began restricting voting rights, according to Joshua A. Douglas at the University of Kentucky, a law professor and subject matter expert.

As the HRC notes, “Noncitizens pay taxes, but are not represented; must comply with laws, but can’t vote to consent. The intent of granting non-citizens voting rights is to enfranchise people who have a direct stake in local policies.” 

Hyattsville and Takoma Park, Maryland, as well as Amherst and Cambridge, Massachusetts allow non-citizen voting in local elections. San Francisco permits participation in school board elections, as did New York City before abolishing elected school boards.

Hate crime sentence enhancements 

Boulder has existing sentence enhancements for hate crimes. HRC is recommending some additions to strengthen prosecution against bias-motivated incidents.

The changes “will encourage victims to come forward and report hate incidents,” staff said in notes to council. “Through our laws, they know that what they have experienced is recognized, taken seriously, and they are protected under the law.”

Hate crimes are on the rise nationally, according to FBI statistics. There were 1,679 reported religious bias offenses in 2017; a 23% increase over the year before. More than half (58.1%) were anti-Jewish, and 18.7% were anti-Islamic.

Local data does not show a corresponding rise. There were three reported hate crimes in 2017 in Boulder. In 2016, there were four; just one in 2015. According to the Department of Justice, more than half of incidents go unreported.

Despite the lack of criminal charges, the HRC has noted a “significant rise” in bias and hate crimes in Boulder reported by residents during the public portion of meetings. Islamic residents share stories of having their head coverings torn off. Boulder’s Sikhs face similar discrimination. Children of immigrants are being taunted at school, and black residents are frequently subjected to slurs.

A feeling of unwelcome was reflected in recent Boulder Community Survey. White respondents were more likely to be satisfied with city services and to feel included in the community fabric than were people of color. Only 48% of Hispanics said the city was open and accepting of people from diverse backgrounds.

“We have a need to take action at the city level to combat the rise of hate nationally, and to make our city safe for all people where state and national hate crime policies are not strong and progressive enough,” said Nikhil Manhekar, HRC chair.

Staff noted the public nature of many religious practices, such as Muslim students praying in school, or Boulder’s large Jewish Community Center, which has been subject to vandalism and bomb threats. Colorado does not prosecute crimes that interfere with religious worship, though California and Florida do.

Before council Tuesday is a decision to add mixed-motive and religious expression language to enhanced sentencing. Often when the hate crime isn’t the dominant offense, it doesn’t get addressed via sentencing. Mixed-motive language would allow for both crimes to be considered.

Among the HRC suggestions:

  • Add these groups to the bias-motivated crime ordinance: creed, sex, genetic characteristics, marital status, ancestry, pregnancy, parenthood, custody of a minor child, source of income and immigration status; homeless or housing status
  • Require police training on hate crimes and investigations: “Boulder has fallen behind the national state laws mandating such training, and as a progressive city we should be leading across the board on these issues,” staff said.
  • Adopt restorative justice for bias crimes

The HRC will hold a public hearing on these matters in March. Once the city attorney’s office has reviewed the suggested language in April, changes will go back before council.

Gender-inclusive language

OUT Boulder is suggesting several language changes throughout the city charter and Boulder Revised Code, including:

  • Changing “sex” to “gender identity” 
  • Replacing references to “both sexes” with “more than one gender” and “gender variance” with “gender expression”
  • Removing several references to gender reassignment surgery and transitioning or transitioned transsexual

The outdated language “creates a distinction between transgender folks who have had gender affirming surgery and those who haven’t,” the group noted. “This undermines the current understanding of gender identity as something that resides in the mind rather than in body part.”

Tuesday’s meeting will not have opportunity for public comment, but any changes to the charter will have to be approved by voters, who recently approved changing gender identity language related to the city’s boards and commissions. Council will revisit the item in May and, if advanced, the changes will be placed on the May ballot.

Author’s note: This story will be updated to include comments from Tuesday’s discussion.

City council meeting: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, 1777 Broadway

Council to weigh hate crime punishments, extending vote to teens, non-citizens