There are only two places in the country where 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in local elections, and they are both small cities in Maryland –– Hyattsville and Takoma Park. Come Nov. 8, San Francisco and Berkeley could join that list.
Now we aren’t talking full voting rights here. Proposition F in San Francisco would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for all municipal officials and measures. Measure Y1 in Berkeley is more restrictive, allowing only the right to vote for school board members. There are efforts to get similar measures up for a vote in states across the country.
Advocates for these measures say they would encourage voter turnout. Opponents say the real purpose is to skew the electorate with more young liberal voters. The split is generally along ideological lines, with liberals supporting the measures and conservatives against them.
Now, if you want a real adult discussion about Proposition F, look no further than Lyndsey Schlax’s social studies class at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. The class recently had a discussion on the measure, and while all the students are either 16 or 17, they had very different opinions about expanding youth voting.
Some students in the class have jobs and believe that should give them the right to vote. Others say kids would be too easily swayed by their parents or Facebook feeds. Student Sam Travers says San Francisco would be a great test case for youth voting.
“Here would be a perfect place to experiment, because I think the youth are very educated and active in politics and social issues,” Travers says.
Take someone like student Isaac Schott. He brought a book of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy to class, and he quotes freely of the Founding Fathers. He opposes Proposition F.
“I think children very often overestimate their own importance and their own ability,” Schott says. “In Plato's 'Republic,' one of the principal things it warns against is an excess of democracy.”
Isaac’s teacher, Lyndsey Schlax, points to the high-level discussion as one more example of why her students are ready to vote. She thinks youth voting would be a boon for society, and especially in San Francisco, where so many young voters are transplants who came for work.
“They arrive here, and they don't have necessarily a huge engagement with the community,” Schlax says, “but our students do.”
In San Francisco, Proposition F has a lot of support from elected officials, including all members of the city’s school board. But it was high school kids like Oliver Sanghvi York who got the ball rolling on Proposition F. You can watch this little video we made of students working to get out the vote for the measure.
York says the real goal of the proposition is to increase voter turnout.
“The hope is that if we can get students in the habit of voting while they are embedded in their communities, they will become lifelong voters,” York says.
If history is any indication, that won’t happen, says Vanderbilt Law School professor Jenny Diamond Cheng. In 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, Cheng says it caused only a brief spike in turnout. Today, young people have the worst participation rates of any age group.
Cheng says we should be wary about lowering the voting age because it can have unintended consequences, like providing more justification to prosecute youths like adults.
“Lowering the voting age arguably gives young people more representation,” Cheng says. “It also may jeopardize some of the protections they have just because they are young.”
In the past, both liberals and conservatives have supported youth voting. Cheng says in the 1950s, conservatives wanted to lower the voting age to 18 because young people were conservative. Then, she says, in the '60s it became a liberal cause because, well, hippies. Today, young people still trend liberal, and critics say the real motive of Proposition F is to skew the electorate.
Claremont McKenna political science professor Jack Pitney believes so. He is a vocal opponent of youth voting.
“My son would want to vote,” Pitney says. “He would also like ice cream for breakfast.”
Students in Lyndsey Schlax’s class want to do more with their votes than order ice cream. Many hope Proposition F passes. But it’s not up to them. They aren’t old enough to cast a ballot.