Voting Rights Debate Gathering Momentum

The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously for the “Political Enfranchisement of 16 and 17-year-olds for Local Elections” Resolution.

It says a lot that these seven School Board members believe students should be able to vote them in or out of office. Even better, the Board is looking ahead to the November ballot that is expected to include a proposed charter amendment to lower the voting age for the SF School Board as well as City and County Board of Supervisors officials. On April 12, the Board also approved teaching high school students about the voting process and the significant political parties. The school district is also expected to offer voter registration drives at high schools at least once a year.

Jillian Wu, Vice Chair of the SF Youth Commission, told Board members that a recent survey of 5,000 students showed that 80 percent of youth would be willing to vote if given the opportunity. She testified that suffrage is important for all high school students, but “especially those who do not have family members or community members who vote or are able to vote.”

The students knew they had four votes in favor of the resolution but won over the other three Board members, no doubt helped by the standing room only crowd, compelling testimony and their powerpoint presentation.

Balboa High School Senior Shara Orquiza makes the case:

“San Francisco is our home too. We should have a say on what goes on in our communities. We’ve never been given an opportunity to take direct action on issues we care about until this initiative came around. Young people like me are experiencing a rapidly changing San Francisco and we deserve to have a say in the direction of our city.”

Orquiza says she was first inspired to participate more in the political process after taking an Ethnic Studies course at her high school.

Next step: May 3, 2016 SF Board of Supervisors will hold its first ever joint meeting with the Youth Commission about Vote16SF and other measures to boost turnout. Last November, only 45 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

For update, check out http://vote16sf.org/ as well as more information on the two cities outside of Washington, DC that have already lowered the voting age to 16 and national organizations that are actively supporting SF and other youth suffrage efforts.

Vote@16: Join the Debate!

Immature, ignorant, uninformed are typical arguments against extending the right to vote to 16-year-olds. Regardless of age, you can vote on this issue that is gaining traction around the U.S. at Debate.org. (A more recent post highlights heavyweights expressing support, even at the national level.)

In January 2015, the San Francisco Youth Commission outlined the rationale in its six-page resolution, including this point:

San Francisco has an aging electorate and has increasingly been losing families over the last two decades. We need young people to be directly engaged in crafting solutions for our city. Extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds will be a positive investment in their civic and political development as lifelong voters and engaged citizens. Our democracy is stronger when more people are at the table!

Ten years ago this student-run commission made the same recommendation but this time, SF Supervisor John Avalos introduced a Charter Amendment that would include city and county elections as well as school district elections. Extensive research by the Youth Commissioners was highlighted at this June 8th hearing. One high school student testified about “the trickle-up influence” on students’ parents, especially low-income immigrants, by encouraging them to vote. Although the sponsors have decided to delay action until next year, this ground-breaking proposal is far from dead. To get updates, follow Vote16SF

The SF Youth Commission has quite a track record, including its YouthVote Student Survey that is a serious instrument to get student input on current polices and issues. While this “youth voice” is valued, students who actually vote could expect real respect from school board members and other elected officials.

Legislation to lower the vote in Washington, DC was officially introduced on November 3, 2015. The bill’s lead champion, City Councilmember Charles Allen argued: “We are holding 16-year-old youth accountable for wide array of decisions and responsibilities, but we do not grant them a meaningful voice in these issues. The Youth Vote Amendment Act of 2015 aims to do just that – by lowering the voting age to 16, we can bring our young people directly into the political process and, hopefully, create lifelong voters.” For updates: Our CAPS Community Alliance for Peaceful Streets. Just outside of the nation’s capital, Representation for Rockville Teens in Maryland has launched a campaign.

In the first U.S. city to lower the voting age in Takoma Park, Maryland, overall turnout in the municipal election was 44 percent among youth and only 11 percent for older voters. In 2015, the city of Hyattsville, Maryland followed and voted unanimously. To watch young advocates testify at both of these city council hearings, click on the links under Voting at the Youth Activism Project’s Success Stories.

Missouri State Representative Karla May of St. Louis has introduced HJR16, the symbolically numbered resolution to amend the state constitution allowing 16-year-olds to vote in all state and local elections. At age 17, she was organizing “street teams…for candidates whom she believed had the best interest of the community.” Perhaps following the unprecedented effort in Ferguson to get African Americans to the polls, another reform in this city might be to extend voting rights to disenfranchised youth.

Youth suffrage in Missouri as well as a bill in the New Mexico legislature to allow 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections are expected to die. However, momentum could build, especially if a San Francisco referendum passes. Between now and then, learn more about the latest research as well as Brazil and several other countries where 16-year-olds vote.

This debate should be happening in every city in America. Let’s build off the work of SF Youth Commissioners!