Students leading a march at 11th and Broadway during the 2019 teacher strike. (Lukas Brekke-Miesner)
In 1971, the national voting age in the United States changed from 21 to 18.
“I believe the time has come to lower the voting age in the United States, and thereby to bring American youth into the mainstream of our political process,” said Senator Ted Kennedy on March 9, 1970, while testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments.
“To me,” Kennedy continued, “this is the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation.”
A year later, the26th Amendment was ratified and 18-year-olds got their right to vote.
The saying “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”—referencing an amendment to the Selective Training and Service Act that would allow for “abled bodied men” ages 18-45 to be drafted to the US military—served as a convincing argument for why young folks should be able to vote. But in Senator Kennedy’s speech from five decades ago, there’s also mention of the impact of technology on young folks' learning process.
"The contrast is clear in the case of education," said Senator Kennedy. "Because of the enormous impact of modern communications, especially television, our youth are extremely well informed on all the crucial issues of our time, foreign and domestic, national and local, urban and rural."
And that was way before Google.
So last week, when Oakland voters passed Measure QQ, giving the city’s 16- and 17-year-old Oaklanders the right to vote in elections of future school board members and directors, they introduced a new wave of young people to the political process, acknowledged the concept of technology-based evolution and nudged this country (ever so slightly) toward a more equitable society.
I’m being extra. But honestly: the passing of this legislation has the potential to be a big deal.
Lukas Brekke-Miesner, Executive Director of Oakland Kids First, has a more sobering perspective on the process of developing this legislation, as well as its passing and future implementation.
Brekke-Miesner, who I've known since our Oakland little league baseball days, tells me that the push for Measure QQ began in the wake of the 2019 teacher strike, after students and organizers marched the picket lines alongside teachers. But after contract negotiations, the board agreed to pay the teachers, but left the students' requests unfulfilled.
“There was a huge movement of young people,” says Brekke-Miesner, recalling that the strike was settled on a Sunday, and the school board met the following Monday; hundreds of young people marched to the board meeting. He says the students were still fighting for a number of things—funding for restorative justice programs, foster care case managers, and Asian-Pacific Islander student support, to name a few. But the testimony from the young people didn’t change anything.
“I was at the first meeting where it was just an idea,” says Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School and member of the All City Council. “After those meetings, I was like, ‘This is going to happen. This is an actual idea that came from students.’”
Ramos, whose father is a Republican and mother is a Democrat, says the benefit of learning and actualizing the political process in the school environment can lead to an unbiased understanding of candidates. Her fellow students are dedicated, she says, even after gentrification has pushed them out of Oakland. (Many of her friends travel "30 to 50 miles" to get to school, she estimates.) And after being involved in All City Council since her freshman year, Ramos adds, "If we start at a younger age, we’re going to continue it."
"The main thing I did was phone banking and outreach," says Oakland Tech senior and Oakland Kids First representative Jessica Chen, who joined the campaign after it was on the ballot. She says she encountered a few hostile conversations, but most people were supportive of her efforts.
Chen says young people having the right to vote is important, even if it's just for school board members. "Before we had the vote, (parents) were voting for us. And now that we have the vote, we can use our power and make the best decisions to benefit our own education," says Chen. "We are the students learning, not the parents."
Brekke-Miesner says he also ran into a few folks who opposed the idea of Measure QQ; one in particular claimed voting is “sacrosanct.” To which Brekke-Miesner points out the country's history of mass voter suppression, and the current volume of uninformed adults. “Pen, [did] you know, in our generation there are people on Facebook like, 'Hey, do you have a voter’s guide?'” he asks me.
I confirm that I do. But still, there's the question about young folks being "impressionable" or having their votes manipulated by adults, especially their parents.
“This notion that young people are just going to be told what to do by adults is funny," says Brekke-Miesner. “Most parents of teenagers would laugh at the thought that that their kids will just do what they say.”
Back in the 70s, when 18-year-olds in the United States got the right to vote in the presidential election, the resulting voter turnout was relatively high. Each election thereafter, the numbers waned a bit further. That changed during President Obama's first successful run for the presidency in 2008, according to census data.
Twenty years later, the narrow margin of victory in this year's presidential election was considerably swayed by young voters, especially young voters of color. According to The Guardian, "86% of Black youth, 82% of Asian youth and 73% of Latino youth" supported President-elect Joe Biden.
On the national level, there are people on both sides of the aisle who support the idea of lowering the voting age to 16–and that's for all elections, not just the school board.
Last year, the first proposal submitted by Rep. Ayanna Pressley was an amendment to lower the national voting age from 18 to 16. It failed, but it garnered the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "I think it's really important to capture kids when they're in high school, when they're interested in all of this, when they're learning about government, to be able to vote," Pelosi said in March 2019.
Representative Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas, asked, "Would policymakers pay more attention to the problems that are being dealt to this segment of the demographic if policymakers were actually answerable to them? I think it is worth having the discussion."
Some people aren't ready for that discussion.
This year, California's Proposition 18, which would've allowed 17-year-olds the right to vote in a primary election as long as they'd be 18 by the time of the general election, failed.
San Francisco's Proposition G, a proposal to lower the voting age for citywide races, also failed—reportedly by a margin of 6,659 votes. (Keep in mind, San Francisco just witnessed one of its highest voter percentages ever of 85.96%, just below the 1944 record of 86.82%. And in the next election, the people who are 16- and 17-year-olds now will be able to vote.)
In 2016, Berkeley voters passed Measure Y1, which gave people ages 16 and 17 the right to vote for School Director. But it's important to note that the measure contained a clause that reads, "... no City funds could be used for any expenses related to the ordinance." So it has yet to be implemented.
"Basically, it was an interesting guidepost," Brekke-Miesner says of Berkeley's legislation. He says it made him realize that "we've got to make sure that not only can we pass this, but that we can implement this."
Jessica Chen says she's in the process of filling out college applications, and aims to stay in-state. She plans on studying sociology and keeping up with the implementation of Measure QQ.
Jessica Ramos let out an exhausted "Whew chile" as she told me she just submitted her Stanford application. She says she's still weighing her options, including the possibility of going to the East Coast and eventually moving back, but overall she plans on remaining invested in local issues.
The 2020 elections brought some noteworthy changes, from the Oval Office on down to local council members. But quietly, Generation Z made a push, both locally and nationally. The next election cycle isn't that far away, and they're in prime position to push things a little further.
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