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 (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!

Girls Win Changes Juvenile Detention Conditions & Policies

The cover of “Caged Birds Sing” contains bold brown brush strokes that could represent bars.  This compelling 18-page booklet published by the Maryland ACLU, written entirely by girls at a juvenile justice facility near Baltimore, explodes with their artwork. The gifted adult ally, a brilliant young attorney, writes in the preface: “I cannot stress enough how completely this report is that of the girls themselves…I simply typed up their comments and strung them together, making minor changes or additions for tone, clarity and consistency only when necessary.”

One painting accompanies the commentary: “The Waxter building feels like a cage–not a place to help girls learn to do better.” Their heart wrenching poems pack real punch:

Rescue Me (by T.)
Take me away from this world
full of hatred.
Give me the oxygen to breathe
before I don’t make it.
Rescue my heart before the
beating stops.
Wipe away every single tear
before it drops.
Give me the confidence I need
to feel good about myself.
Help me even when I say I don’t need help.
Tell me all the things I do best,
Before it’s too late and I live
my life full of regrets.

Unlike most reports that use graphs, quotes or photographs to break up the dense content, every page of “Caged Birds Sing” makes a splash with artwork and concludes with 41 specific recommendations.  The Baltimore Sun newspaper and other media paid attention which increased pressure on state juvenile justice authorities who adapted three significant proposals:

  • Create an evening reporting center for girls in Baltimore City, as an alternate to detention.
  • Hire more staff and make sure that the staff you have get good training/know the rules, and treat us respectfully.
  • Give girls the same types of opportunities you give boys, like hands-on experiences and different types of job training programs

This document demonstrates how “youth voice” and art activism, when combined with media advocacy and direct action with policymakers, can make a lasting impact.