16-year-olds want to vote – and states are starting to listen to them

“We know that the earlier we can get people voting, the more likely we can keep them voting for the rest of their lives.”

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SOURCEYES! Magazine
Image Credit: John Bazemore/AP

While canvassing her district while running for state senator in Oregon in 2018, one event changed the tone of Sen. Shemia Fagan’s conversations with voters: the deadly Parkland, Florida, school shooting, which took place that February.

Her constituents discussed how the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School seized the national conversation on gun safety.

“As I was out at the doors, I had many conversations with older voters who were so impressed with the results the Parkland students were getting,” Fagan said. “The examples of the 16- and 17-year-olds out there were moving the needle.”

It’s what inspired her to propose Feb. 18 that Oregon lower its minimum voting age to 16. She said it would allow teens who are old enough to drive, pay taxes, and be charged as an adult in the criminal justice system to also establish good civic habits at a younger age.

The bill is the first of its kind, advocates say, in suggesting that 16-year-olds should vote in local and statewide elections. A Kentucky proposal introduced in December would lower the voting age to 16, but just for local elections. Another in California would reduce the age to 17. They all come on the heels of some recent, but failed, efforts to lower the voting age in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Only the nearby suburbs of Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, now allow people under 18 to vote in local elections.

“Young people have always led our most crucial social movements – this is absolutely one of those,” said Samantha Gladu, executive director of the Bus Project, an Oregon-based youth advocacy organization that endorses granting suffrage to teens.

Indeed, Natalie Khalil, a senior at Lake Oswego High School, was only 17 when the Parkland shooting happened. As a first-generation American whose first memory at 7 or 8 years of age was participating in a protest advocating Palestinian rights, she was frustrated to know that she wouldn’t be old enough to vote in the 2018 midterm election.

But days after her 18th birthday, she joined Fagan in introducing the proposal at the Oregon State Capitol.

“The youth are just tired of begging you to listen,” Khalil said. “So we’re going to show you to listen.”

Supporters of teen suffrage say that instilling the habit of voting among young people would better set them up to become lifelong voters.

“We know that the earlier we can get people voting, the more likely we can keep them voting for the rest of their lives,” said Sarah Audelo, director for the Alliance of Youth Organizing.

Andrew Wilkes, senior director of policy and advocacy at Generation Citizen, who also oversees the singularly focused national campaign Vote16, says that lowering the voting age in Takoma Park in 2013 yielded a voting rate twice as high among 16- and 17-year-olds than among the rest of the electorate.

“This is an opportunity to move democratic participation and instill public confidence in our institutions,” Wilkes said.

The bill in Oregon, even if passed in Oregon’s Legislature, would then have to go to voters to approve of a constitutional amendment.

That might pose a bigger obstacle, but the narrowly defeated 2016 effort in San Francisco offers promise, Fagan said. That initiative garnered 47.9 percent of the vote, and the issue has only attracted more attention since then, she said.

A March hearing is planned for Oregon’s spring break, Fagan said, when busloads of students are expected to come to “show, not tell” why they deserve the vote.

“If they come when people actually hear them testify, they are as informed if not more informed than the (average voter),” she said.

This push comes amid a movement across states to extend voting access and root out corruption in elections. In the 2018 midterms, voters in 15 out of 16 states passed anti-corruption reforms on their ballots, including anti-gerrymandering measures and campaign finance regulations. Voters in eight other states approved reforms earlier in the year. Florida followed on the heels of Maryland in extending voter enfranchisement to felons.

Gladu said extending the vote to older teens is just part of that greater push to extend democratic parity to more Americans – especially to students who don’t have a say in the governance of their school districts or statewide education funding.

“The conversation that has erupted with the intro of this bill … illustrates to me that the time is now,” she said. “The interest in this is so huge and so promising, and having young people at the table really gives it a shot.”

Khalil said she canvassed for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown as a 17-year-old in 2018, and her friends are volunteering for an upcoming school board candidate who’s become an exciting figure.

But she’s most excited to cast a vote for Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2020.

“He just listens, and he’s always on the right side of history,” she said.

Khalil points to last year’s March for Our Lives and the youth contribution to Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and the push behind the Green New Deal as evidence that high school students are ready to elect leaders who will represent their interests.

“People want to feel empowered,” she said. “That’s what the youth of America feels like they’re not getting.”

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