SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — San Francisco could become the first major city in the United States to let 16- and 17-year-old residents vote in municipal elections if approved by the city’s adult voters in a November 2020 ballot initiative.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved asking voters this fall if the city’s charter should be amended to let younger voters have more of a say in local politics.
“It’s essential that young people build a habit of voting as early as possible and continue to participate in our democracy throughout their lives,” said Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, who sponsored the ballot measure.
It will be the second time in four years that San Franciscans have voted on a proposal to expand voting rights to younger residents. A nearly identical proposal failed in 2016 with 52.6% of San Franciscans voting against it.
The push to lower the voting age for local elections is supported by the city’s Youth Commission, a 17-member group ranging in age from 12 to 23 who are appointed by the mayor and Board of Supervisors to make recommendations on issues affecting youth. Three Youth Commission members made a presentation to the board’s Rules Committee on June 15 explaining why supervisors should expand voting rights to younger residents.
Youth commissioner Ariana Arana, a rising senior at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School, said youth involvement in recent protests against racial injustice and police brutality demonstrate why young people should have a greater say in politics.
“It is very important for young people to have a democratic way to participate in their government and not have to take to the streets every time there is an injustice and they are unheard,” Arana said.
She noted that young people are one of the groups most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic regarding their schooling, job opportunities, finances, housing and health. She said young people will be the ones tasked with rebuilding after the pandemic and creating a “better plan” to make sure the government is more prepared for such an event in the future.
“Therefore, it is crucial that young people have a democratic way to voice their needs and make change in their community,” Arana said.
Sarah Ginsburg, a youth commissioner who will be a senior at Lowell High School, noted that because young people are more diverse than the overall San Francisco population, it is even more crucial that their voices be heard. One of three students in San Francisco’s public school system have an immigrant parent, meaning their parent cannot vote.
“It’s important that youth are able to address the needs of their families and communities so the policies and elected officials we vote on ends up benefitting everybody in our city, not just those with the privilege to vote,” Ginsburg said.
Voter turnout in the United States is far lower than in most developed nations, according to a recent Pew Research study. Just under 56% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, compared to voter turnout surpassing 70% in recent elections in Australia, Israel, South Korea and Sweden.
In 2007, Austria became the first European country to lower its voting age to 16. Research shows that 16-to-17-year-olds voted for the first time at higher rates compared to 18-to-20-year-olds.
Supervisor Yee noted that voter turnout in San Francisco is lowest in the two neighborhoods with the largest number of young people and children — Bayview and Visitacion Valley. Lowering the voting age could increase turnout among young people and their parents in those neighborhoods, he argued.
Yee added that young people who attend public schools, use public transportation, work, pay taxes and can be tried as adults in court should get to vote on issues affecting the criminal justice system, public education and how tax dollars are spent.
“Undeniably 16 and 17-year-olds are impacted by the decisions we make at the ballot box — on education, transportation, housing, and economic development,” Yee proclaimed. “They deserve to have a say.”
San Franciscans will not be the only ones deciding how much sway young people should have in the democratic process this November.
Last week, the California Assembly advanced a proposed constitutional amendment that would let 17-year-olds vote in primary elections. The proposed amendment will be placed on California’s November 2020 ballot. If approved, California would join more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia in letting some people younger than 18 vote in primaries, according a legislative analysis.