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L.A. students are already activists. Now they want to vote at 16

L.A. Times Today airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.  Students rally outside LAUSD headquarters in support of lowering the voting age to 16 for district elections. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

High schoolers this decade have stormed out of their classrooms after the 2016 election, demanding protection for immigrants. They have called for gun control in the wake of school shootings, spurring a nationwide movement.

In L.A. this year, students picketed with their teachers in the largest teachers strike in recent history. Pockets of students throughout the city are constantly involved in advocacy for better learning conditions.

Now they want more than a voice — they want a vote.

Taking on an issue with potentially broad implications for the power dynamic in the nation’s second-largest school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District board voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution directing the superintendent to report on the feasibility — including costs — of a 2020 ballot measure that would lower the voting age to 16 in school district elections. The resolution was authored by Tyler Okeke, 17, the non-voting student representative.

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An estimated additional 60,500 students in the district would be eligible to vote if such a ballot measure passed, according to L.A. Unified spokeswoman Barbara Jones.

Tuesday’s board action is preliminary — in order to actually lower the voting age, Los Angeles city officials would have to put a measure on the ballot for voters in the district to approve. But the school board’s buy-in is an important first step.

Berkeley voters in 2016 approved lowering the voting age to 16 for school board elections and the district agreed to take on costs, said Luis Sanchez, executive director of Power California, a group advocating for youth voting rights statewide.

That same year, though, San Francisco voters narrowly rejected a measure to expand voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds for school board and community college elections and local candidates and ballot measures. Opponents had similar concerns to those expressed by some on the L.A. school board Tuesday — that teens may lack life experience or knowledge necessary to make informed decisions.

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A few dozen students held a rally outside the L.A. Unified headquarters just west of downtown during Tuesday’s school board meeting, calling for the district to take first steps toward lowering the voting age.

“I think at the most fundamental level, the resolution is supposed to start a conversation about the state of affairs at our district and what place students have in it,” Tyler, a senior at Vladovic Harbor Teacher Prep Academy in Wilmington, said in an interview Monday.

Many of the new voters would be from communities who are historically disenfranchised from voting, said Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA.

“The younger people are, the more likely they are to be black, brown and Asian,” Diaz said.

Another barrier to voting for LAUSD families is immigration status — many students are citizens themselves, but their parents are ineligible to vote. A measure like this would give those families a vote, advocates say. Okeke made that point during the meeting, but did not ask the board to consider offering voting rights in district elections to non-citizens, as San Francisco has done.

During his time on the board, and especially during the January teachers strike, Tyler believed that the interests of two warring powers who often fund elections — the teachers union and charter school supporters — get more attention than students.

It’s not a coincidence that the younger generation skews progressive and that they are fighting for voting rights in this moment in history, Tyler said.

The last time the voting age changed nationally, from 21 to 18, was in 1971 when young people demanded the right to vote during the Vietnam War — the justification then for many was that if they could sacrifice their lives for their country, they should be able to vote too.

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“Today, if students are going to schools that are unsafe and under-resourced and are living lives that are shaped by the decisions of politicians that they don’t agree with,” Diaz said, “then they should very much have the opportunity for reform and redress.”

And Tyler noted that L.A. Unified has considerable lobbying power as the second-largest school district in the United States — student constituents with voting power can encourage district leaders to advocate for their interests nationally and statewide.

Opening school board elections to teens makes sense because students are more in tune than many adult voters to school needs, said Arianna Romero, 18, a senior at Mendez High School in Boyle Heights who rallied at the meeting Tuesday. Her peers are also more likely to get involved in voting in an election that directly affects them, she said, and that process will help prepare them for future elections.

Already, Romero and her friends are engaged in politics — during the 2018 midterm election, she was 17 but helped her mom understand the propositions on the ballot. Romero follows her representatives on social media and learned about who was running and their policies from her Advanced Placement government teacher, among others.

Voting at a young age also increases the likelihood that candidates and political parties will pay attention to these groups in the future, Diaz said. Campaigns have limited funds, and they spend money on reaching the people most likely to vote — one major indication is whether someone has voted before. If a student votes in high school, she gets added to voting rolls and campaign lists and becomes “lucrative” to political parties, candidates and issue campaigns, Diaz said.

Though the board unanimously approved the resolution, board member Richard Vladovic expressed concern that teachers might wield undue influence over students.

“Many times students tend to listen to their teachers … and sometimes we have a greater influence than we thought we had,” Vladovic said.

Okeke, though, said in an interview that he thinks young people are more skeptical than adult voters and see the problems in schools every day. “We’re not going to be easily charmed” by special interests, he said.

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As written, the resolution would examine lowering the voting age only for school board elections. Tyler said he hopes that instead of just expanding access to school board elections, officials seriously consider lowering the voting age for all municipal elections. That could allow students to vote for measures that impact school funding, like a parcel tax the district is currently pushing.

Makailah Jenkins, 17, told the school board Tuesday that she already speaks often at board meetings, marches and organizes her peers. “Voting would be the next logical step.”

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


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