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Voting at a Younger Age Can Help Fortify America’s Electoral Democracy

Students take part in the Power California early voting event in Norwalk in on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. | Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Note: Public Media Group of Southern California does not endorse any proposition. The opinion expressed here is solely of the author and does not reflect the views of PBS SoCal, KCET or Link TV.

Learn more about the issues young people are fighting for on "City Rising: Youth & Democracy." Watch now.
City Rising: Youth & Democracy - Media Manager

San Francisco is currently in the midst of an exodus. The City’s once community-oriented ethos is being dismantled by a wealthy electorate that skews older, whiter and more conservative than the average citizen. A study by PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California predicts that by 2040, San Francisco County would likely have a non-Hispanic white majority. It would also be the only one of the Bay Area counties where diversity would decrease. What that results in is legislation being passed that only caters to the needs of this narrow constituency, and not necessarily of all San Franciscans. This crisis is not uncommon across the nation and calls for a re-evaluation of national understandings of who and what a voter looks like, the precedent for enfranchisement expansion and reform, and what the possible consequences would be of lowering the voting age.

Vote16 is a national movement that works to dismantle this disparity. By lowering municipal voting ages to include citizens aged 16 and 17, Vote16 supports the understanding that local electorates become more representative and democratic, thus increasing the reliability and favorability of local government. This is not without precedent; three municipalities, along with the country of Scotland, have recently adopted this expansion, and have seen increased voter turnout and civic engagement amongst all age groups. However, the age group that consistently shows up to the polls in the highest volumes is those newly enfranchised 16 and 17-year-olds. For example, a report by the UK electoral commission found that during the Scottish independence referendum, 75% of 16-17-year-olds turned out to vote with 97% saying they would vote again in future elections. Movements under the umbrella of Vote16, however, are not limited to local charter amendments. California’s Proposition 18 motions to enfranchise 17-year-olds for the primary election who will be of legal voting age by the date of the general election.

Youth Power posters motivate high school students to vote during the Power California event in Norwalk on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. | Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Youth Power posters motivate high school students to vote during the Power California event in Norwalk on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. | Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

One critical asset of lowering the voting age at this point in a student’s academic career is that they are oftentimes receiving their primary formal civics education. Municipalities that adopt a measure such as Vote16 can therefore regulate and reform their local civics education to prepare these voters in a formal and academic setting. In doing so, one fully dissolves the counterargument to Vote16 that young people are not civically reformed. Furthermore, a tailored and formalized civics education is not something that majority of currently eligible voters have received; therefore, by allowing these civically educated students the right to vote, you are actually increasing the median level of civics education of the electorate as a whole.

The primary opposition to the idea of Vote16 is the understanding that young people are simply too immature to hold the power of a voter responsibly. Given that there is no constitutional or legal language that defines maturity as a grounds for enfranchisement or disenfranchisement, this argument holds little substance. If we are to use social maturity as a grounds for disenfranchisement, millions of currently eligible voters would lose their enfranchisement. Social maturity holds little weight over how one votes, versus civic education and political maturity.

With the current status of Californian elections, youth are being deprived of their citizen rights. As taxpayers, students, community activists and community members, these individuals are devoid of a critical right they deserve; the right to vote. The idea of voter expansion is often frightening prior to its implementation — take the 19th and 26th amendments as key examples — but they are necessary in order to fortify the democratic representation our Founding Fathers outlined and established with the founding of this country. After all, why would they have made the constitution amendable, if not to address the changing needs of the populace? Therefore, measures such as San Francisco’s Prop G, which would lower its municipal voting age to 16, and California’s Prop 18, allowing 17-year-olds to vote in the primary should they be 18 by the general election, are not only imperative steps in the re-establishment of a representative election, but are demonstrations of American patriotism, and pride in the civic maturity and preparedness of American youth. The time is now to vote yes on such measures and stand on the right side of history.

This article is a series companion to the documentary “City Rising: Youth & Democracy” funded by The California Endowment.

Top Image: Students take part in the Power California early voting event in Norwalk in on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. | Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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