On Tuesday, this California city decides if 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote
Ada Meighan-Thiel, a 17-year-old senior at Culver City High School, acted out an age-old teenage ritual as she stood on Marcelo Chamecki’s front porch the week before election day. She was there to try to get an adult to take her and her young friends seriously.
Her arguments were well-rehearsed on this sunny afternoon as she expounded on the virtues of Measure VY, a ballot initiative that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city and school board elections in her Westside hometown.
The local measure goes before voters in Tuesday’s election. If it passes, it would make Culver City one of few U.S. communities to allow people as young as 16 to vote. No other municipality in the country has the issue on its ballot this year.
“Measure VY would expand the local voting age here in Culver City to 16,” Meighan-Thiel said, a clipboard of informational fliers in hand. “By really involving people in democracy from a young age, a value of participation will be instilled in them so going forward they’ll be much more habitual, well-informed voters.”
Clutching a coffee mug in the wooden doorway of his home on a tree-shaded street, Chamecki, a science professor at UCLA, listened to Meighan-Thiel’s pitch, nodding as she explained why she should be trusted to vote. He asked questions about how the proposal would be implemented.
Outside some homes Meighan-Thiel canvassed were literal signs of the uphill battle before supporters of the movement, often referred to as Vote 16: yard signs advocating for the measure’s defeat. Some seemed to conjure lyrics from Pink Floyd, the classic rock band from back when many of the high schoolers’ grandparents were young and probably, too, thought grown-ups didn’t get it: “NO on VY ‘Vote 16’ Leave the kids alone!”
Chamecki at least seemed open to the youthful pitch.
“I haven’t even decided everything yet, so this is very helpful,” he told the teenager. “I’m aware of the situation a little bit, but it’s great to get more information.”
The rareness of municipalities that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote underscores how contested the issue is.
Supporters of the movement argue that at 16, young people are mature enough to have a say in decisions that affect them. And because they can get a job and pay taxes, they should be able to cast a ballot, they add.
Opponents worry that 16-year-olds are too young to fully understand political issues and are too easily influenced to make reasoned electoral choices.
Conservatives and even some centrist Democrats also fear that allowing traditionally left-leaning young people to vote would disproportionately help progressive politicians and causes.
Years before the high school activists tried to make Vote 16 a reality in Culver City, several towns in Maryland started pushing for the change. Six places in that state allow 16- and 17- year-olds to vote in some elections.
The first of them, Takoma Park, approved the measure nearly a decade ago. Takoma Park, like all the Maryland municipalities that approved the practice, is not far from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park, where much of the research and early advocacy on the issue originated.
In 2020, 49.2% of San Franciscans voted for a similar ballot measure, falling just short of lowering the voting age for municipal elections in a city of more than 800,000 people. In 2016, Berkeley became the first municipality in California to approve such a measure for school board elections, followed by its Alameda County neighbor Oakland four years later. But the county has yet to implement the measure, which does not have a mechanism to force its rollout, so 16- and 17-year-olds in both cities are still unable to vote.
No such measures have been approved anywhere in the U.S. beyond Alameda County and Maryland.
In Congress, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) has repeatedly introduced legislation to amend the Constitution to make 16 the national minimum voting age. There hasn’t been enough support in the Capitol for the proposal, but it wouldn’t be without precedent globally, as countries including Argentina, Austria and Malta allow citizens to vote at age 16.
Like many of her peers, Melisa Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Fremont High School in Oakland and Vote 16 advocate, argues that it’s vital that today’s teenagers have a voice in the political process. The way she sees it, young people like her have to clean up messes older generations left behind, including climate change and gun violence.
“This is my issue, this is my life that I live through that I should be in charge of instead of having adults make all the decisions,” Rodriguez said. “So pushing this is really empowering for me and my community. To be able to do this, it just says a lot of good things about us and our future and future generations.”
Teenagers in cities and towns from the Bay Area to Oregon to Colorado are exploring pushes to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
In Culver City, a number of politicians have spoken out against Measure VY. That charge is being led by Steven Gourley, a retired lawyer who has served terms as mayor, councilman and school board president in this city of about 40,000.
“Virtually everyone I have approached does not know it’s on the ballot. When I tell them what it is, they say, ‘Sixteen, are they crazy?’” he said in a recent phone interview. “I talk to people who’ve had teenagers and I talk to teachers who taught in the high school, and they say that these people are too young to vote.”
He has filed official forms with the city outlining his opposition. Earlier this year, he put up a website to state his concerns about the proposal and list 18 local leaders — including two other former Culver City mayors — who he says agree with him.
Gourley, a lifelong Democrat, echoed a concern shared by some of his fellow old-liners that the push to lower the voting age in Culver City is a ploy by “so-called progressives” to try to establish long-term control over local politics.
“They’re trying to expand the electorate so they can get reelected,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city’s younger, more left-leaning current mayor, Daniel Lee, said he’s a “passionate supporter” of Vote 16.
“Studies show that the earlier someone really starts to participate in the voting process, the more likely it will be a longtime thing,” he said.
Generation Citizen, a nonpartisan national civics education organization that helped launch the national Vote 16 campaign, has supported ballot initiatives to expand voting to 16- and 17-year-olds in communities in multiple states.
The New York-based group provides advice to young activists and their adult advisors, helps navigate complicated bureaucratic processes, and amplifies efforts to get out the word about the issue. This year, all eyes are on the Golden State.
“California is poised to be a groundswell and a laboratory of informed democratic representation, and I think that’s what Culver City being on the ballot on Tuesday represents,” said Andrew Wilkes, Generation Citizen’s chief policy and advocacy officer. He noted that in Culver City, the organization has provided technological assistance, communications support and campaign strategy advice.
“It’s pretty remarkable that through a pandemic you had folks there that didn’t let it go,” Wilkes added.
To many young Vote 16 advocates, it’s a galvanizing issue that’s brought them closer to the political process than they ever imagined they’d be while still in high school. For the first time, they see a path to having a voice in their community before they become adults. Its most ardent young supporters cite research that has found that 16-year-olds have adult levels of cognitive capacity.
As he prepared to canvass a neighborhood Wednesday, Miles Griffin, a 17-year-old senior at Culver City High, described the right to vote in existential terms.
“I think voting and having a voice in general is kind of the issue to end all issues. Because unless you can vote, unless you have a voice, you can’t make any kind of difference,” Griffin said. “If policy affects people, then they should have a say in that policy.”
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