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A major American city may soon allow 16-year-olds to vote — and others could follow suit

If the proposition passes, San Francisco would become the first large city to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections.
Image: Voters Cast Ballots In The California Primary Election
A voter wearing a mask casts a ballot at a polling station in San Francisco City Hall on March 3.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

San Francisco residents will cast ballots in November to determine not just who should be in the White House but also whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in local elections.

A similar measure introduced in 2016 narrowly failed, with 48 percent of the vote, but local activists and organizers are confident that it will pass this time.

"I really think that Vote 16 will help youth of color in San Francisco establish the habit of voting at an earlier age and really provide them with the support and the resources that they need to continue building on that habit as they grow older," said Crystal Chan, 18, an organizer for Vote 16 SF who fought to get the measure on the ballot.

If the proposition passes, San Francisco would become the first major American city to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in municipal elections. But the question remains: What would be improved by lowering the voting age by two years?

"Research is clear on this, that voting is a habit. And 16 is a better time than 18 to establish that habit," said Brandon Klugman, Vote 16 SF's campaign manager. "Our motivation here first and foremost is to make sure that we put new voters in a position to establish that habit in the first election they're eligible for and then to continue participating throughout their lives, which is good for democracy on every level."

While the debate is getting renewed attention, some smaller cities have allowed people as young as 16 to vote in local elections for years — like Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, where city officials say they have seen positive results since its implementation in 2013, pointing to increased youth engagement and higher turnout.

"I hear from a lot of people around the country who are interested, a lot of young people, but also people who are not young, who are interested in adopting this in their communities," said Jessie Carpenter, a Takoma Park city clerk.

At the federal level, lowering the voting age hasn't picked up the same traction, but the initiative does have some bipartisan support in Congress.

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Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who has long advocated for the issue, introduced a constitutional amendment in 2018 to lower the voting age nationwide to 16.

"I'm always inspired by our nation's youth who have demonstrated wisdom, maturity and passion on issues like social justice, gun control, and climate change," Meng said in a statement. "They are the leaders of our future and the decisions we make impact their lives every day. To capture their views and experiences, we must lower the voting age to 16 in all elections."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., introduced an amendment to HR 1 — the For the People Act — last year to lower the federal voting age to 16. The amendment got 126 votes, including one from a Republican, Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas, a member of the Rules Committee who said it struck a chord with him.

"Here's the point: 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," Burgess said in March 2019.

The movement also got mainstream support, including backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has long supported the idea.

"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, who represents San Francisco, said in March 2019.

Skeptics argue that 16-year-olds aren't mature or informed enough to cast ballots and that the policy could be inconsistent with other age-related requirements in the United States.

Colorado College senior Nate Hochman, a Republican activist, doesn't support the initiative, citing questions about whether young people have enough experience in "understanding exactly what good governance looks like" within their communities, among other reasons.

"Sixteen-year-olds — they're sophomores, juniors in high school. Like, they're deeply impressionable. They're largely interested in learning what, you know, their friends are doing and appearing to be cool. And they're not capable of making completely rational decisions about voting," Hochman said. "When are you an adult? When do we trust you to make your own decisions about who you are in the world and making your own way?"

As was the case in recent years with gun safety advocacy and climate change, said Klugman of Vote 16 SF, the coronavirus pandemic lends urgency to the need for young people to have a say in local elections.

"We've seen the concrete effects that local policy decisions make on the lives of young people really more clearly than ever as school boards and local officials figure out how they're going to reopen schools ... how they're going to make sure that young people have access to remote learning and the achievement gap doesn't widen," he said.

While Klugman is optimistic that support for the movement will continue to grow at the local level, he looks forward to its someday becoming the law of the land.

"I think we're just getting the conversation started here, and hopefully, when we look back a few decades down the road, we'll say, hey, that actually was inevitable — even though it started off as something that was seen as pretty new and pretty bold," he said.