Narrowing the Accountability Gap: Lowering the Voting Age to 16 for Youth in School Board Elections In California

Hundreds of students walked out of schools and across Minneapolis to protest U.S. immigration policies. In Detroit Public Schools, students demonstrated over unsafe and deteriorating schools. A confrontation between a security guard and a student prompted youth to demonstrate in East Oakland. A student-organized petition drive urging school board members in Clovis Unified School District to approve a gender-neutral dress code gathered nearly 2,500 signatures. And in Seattle, students from Rainer Beach High School and other district schools led a successful effort to convince the Seattle School District to launch a pilot program focused on provided low-income students with transit passes.

This is just a small sampling of the student-led activism that has occurred across the country in the last few months. Across the nation and worldwide, a movement has been growing to more fully engage young people in democracy and democratic processes. It's a movement that has reached California communities and provides us with a golden opportunity to increase voter engagement and improve accountability for local elected officials. The Children's Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA) is excited that California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow youth aged 16 and older to vote in their local school board and community college district governing board elections. We have joined with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, Father's and Families of San Joaquin, and the Black Parallel School Board, among others, to emphasize that the voices of young people matter - particularly in the conversation about education and equity. Enfranchising young voters to have a say in decisions that directly impact their lives will make those districts, and their elected and appointed district leaders, more responsive to the people they serve. It will also help young people build voting habits that can last a lifetime.

In 2014, the United Nations called for countries to increase their engagement efforts with young people in democratic processes. Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico and Washington have all had proposals to lower the voting age. Two cities in Maryland - Takoma Park and Hyattsville - have actually had success in lowering the voting age by amending their city charters; and in 2013, the turnout of newly enfranchised voters in Takoma Park was nearly double the turnout of voters over age 18.

In a time where voter apathy and fatigue ebbs and flows, this is a critical opportunity to engage young people to vote, become active in civic life, and open a window toward creating citizens who will be lifelong voters. Research suggests that not only would 16- and 17-year olds be able to make informed political decisions, but that this could lead to a generation with instilled voting habits and greater civic engagement throughout their lives.

While one's first reaction may be to question the ability of 16- and 17-year-olds to fully understand the relevant issues and appreciate the importance of what the right to vote represents, Maria Gonzalez, a student at Jordan High School in Long Beach, said it is no different than some adults.

"The students who really care about the issues and who are involved will take it seriously and vote," 17-year old Maria underscored. Since Maria became active in our Action Scholars Leadership program more than a year ago, she has sought out opportunities where her voice can be heard. She is currently a student representative on her school site council where members provide input on school programs and spending, including the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that districts develop pursuant to the requirements of California's new Local Control Funding Formula. Providing youth, like Maria, with the right to vote will help to enrich local education debates with a unique perspective grounded in real-world experiences.

The constitutional right of voting has been afforded to individuals 18 and over to ensure sensible civic participation and the right to weigh in on decisions that will directly impact them. Across this state, 16- and 17-year olds continue to increase their advocacy on local and statewide issues, particularly around education issues that have a direct and immediate impact on their lives and prospects for a successful future. Yet, they lack actual electoral power to turn that advocacy into true accountability at the ballot box. Providing youth with the right to vote while they are still high school students will very likely translate to an increase in more meaningful and informed civic engagement around education. It may also lead to increased voter turnout in historically low school board elections.

Youth are directly impacted by the decisions of school board members and governing community college boards. They must rely on their parents to vote for the elected officials who make the key decisions. "It's always the adults making decision for us, it's time that our voices matter," Maria said.

A significant number of students have parents who are not able to vote in elections because of their citizenship status. Yet their child is a citizen whose voice is left unheard. This leaves those students, whom society has deemed responsible enough to drive, work, and pay taxes, without meaningful representation in fundamental decisions that impact their daily lives in school.

Former Senator Paul Wellstone opined that, "Education and democracy have the same goal: the fullest possible development of human capabilities." Assemblywoman Gonzalez's proposal is a bold opportunity for California to enfranchise and empower future generations by engaging young people in a core civic responsibility early; and turning young voters into lifelong voters who are invested in the democratic process. Our young people should not be relegated to the sideline nor should their concerns be swept to the side and muted. Democracy is to be expanded and not limited. Lowering the voting age to 16 in school board and community college elections is a reasonable solution to ensure that youth like Maria are respected and heard by the very people who play a significant role in determining their future. #Voteat16