Sixteen- and 17-year-olds may soon be allowed to vote in Berkeley, making the city one of just a few in the country to allow them to do so.
Measure Y1, placed on the ballot by Berkeley City Council, would allow individuals 16 and older to vote for the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Directors so long as they meet certain conditions prior to approval. In addition to Berkeley, many other states and cities have movements to allow 16-year-olds to vote, including San Francisco ballot measure Proposition F that proposes age 16 as the legal age to vote in local elections.
“I think that there is growing pressure to recognize the fact that young people ought to have a say in their future,” said Sandré Swanson, a former member of the California State Assembly. “I think we have to acknowledge the young people today, given the internet and the immediate access of information … are much more informed and much more qualified to exercise civic responsibility.”
Alex Koroknay-Palicz, president of the National Youth Rights Association, said lowering the voting age has been a priority of his organization since its founding in 1998. He said that 10 years ago, the organization worked on a campaign with Berkeley High School students to lower the voting age, but it did not pass.
“For a lot of people, when they first hear about lowering the voting age, it’s like a strange bizarre new thing they never heard about or thought about before,” Koroknay-Palicz said. “After they consider it and think about it, it makes a whole lot of sense.”
Defining what age is “mature enough” to vote is a big question, Koroknay-Palicz said. He added that with the numerous responsibilities a 16-year-old already can have, such as paying taxes and driving cars, young people should not be treated as second-class citizens.
The cities of Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, found that after lowering the voting age for local elections, voter turnout rates for 16- and 17-year-old residents was higher than that of the overall population, according to Koroknay-Palicz. He noted that once someone votes for the first time, they tend to continue voting throughout their life.
“Y1 promotes youth becoming involved in matters that affect them personally and promotes early civic engagement, both things that will help grow our future leaders,” said Christine Staples, president of the Berkeley PTA Council, in an email. “It was especially inspiring to see our high school students at Berkeley Unified School District’s back-to-school nights … passing out flyers at our elementary and middle schools.”
Berkeley High School senior Elijah Liedecker said the initiative is an extension of the democratic process, referring to the movement for the 26th Amendment that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.
“(I want) voting to become a habit, we want it to become an addiction,” said Liedecker, who is also a student committee member for the Vote 16 – Berkeley campaign. “A lot of people don’t believe (16-year-olds) are responsible enough to vote. … The reality is that life essentially starts before 18 or before 21. Things happen and voting should encompass that too.”
Liedecker noted that Measure Y1’s specific condition not to use city funds during implementation was to ensure the measure would pass. He said he expects the school board will absorb the costs, with the budgetary details to be determined after the measure’s approval.
In addition, Measure Y1 only provides a framework — rather than a comprehensive process — for youth voting, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. Specifics would still need to be determined through an agreement between the school district and Alameda County Registrar of Voters.
“One of our main goals is figuring out how this is going to work in Berkeley, and we are running it almost as a pilot,” Liedecker said, explaining why Vote 16 – Berkeley advocated for youth voting only in school board elections rather than local elections. “Time will tell (but) I think the goal in the near future is working towards local elections.”
Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said 16- and 17-year-old high school students are already becoming more engaged with their civic duties through community service and history education. She added that she is “100 percent confident” that Measure Y1 will pass.
“Why wouldn’t they be able to make judgments or decisions about their school board?” Leyva-Cutler asked. “They know they are direct recipients of the school board, and they should have a say and they should have a vote.”