Thursday, December 03, 2015

Youth Voice! Youth Vote?

This week’s post focuses on new legislation that has been introduced in DC Council to reduce the eligible voting age in the District to 16 years of age. We hope that this blog will start a discussion among DCAYA members and youth in the community about what it would take for the District to successfully engage our most vulnerable young people as voters in our local elections in 2016  if this legislation is signed into law. What do you think? Share your thoughts with @DCAYA on Twitter with the hashtag #DCYouthVote to join the local conversation, or use #16toVote to join the national one.

Access to voting rights has long been a unifying issue for the residents of DC, who are required to pay federal income tax but cannot elect a voting member to the United States Congress. “Taxation Without Representation,” according to our standard license plate slogan since 2000.

While we don’t expect a solution to our long standing federal predicament anytime soon, last month, DC Councilmembers Charles Allen, David Grosso and Brianne Nadeau, introduced a bill that would at least broaden local voting rights to more of our residents in municipal elections. The Youth Vote Amendment Act of 2015 would lower the eligible voting age in the District to 16, effectively widening the pool of eligible voters by some 10,500 DC residents under 18.

Keep in mind that these are youth who are already old enough to drive, hold a job, file income taxes and testify in court. And the District already allows 17 year olds to vote in primaries, if the youth will turn 18 by the time the general election occurs. The new legislation would grant full voting rights to residents 16 and older, including for referenda and elections for mayor, council, school board and other district-wide and neighborhood-based offices, as well as federal primaries and elections, including for president and delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

If the bill is signed into law, the District would become the third, and by far the largest, jurisdiction in the country to lower the voting age to 16. The others are two of our Maryland neighbors: Hyattsville, which passed legislation in January of this year, and Takoma Park, which became the first in the country two years ago.

Takoma Park Sees More Youth Engagement

“In general, I've been amazed by the turnout of 16 and 17 year olds,” says Takoma Park Councilmember Tim Male, who first introduced the legislation that changed the voting age there. The city has since had two municipal elections. “And the most profound difference – the most important – is that these young people now ask for things from the people that represent them. They ask for representative democracy and constituent services. It's a wonderful change to feel like we've made that connection to people.”

Takoma Park’s city clerk reports that 45 percent of all registered 16 and 17 year olds turned out to vote in the city’s November 3, 2015 election. This is more than twice the 21 percent voter turnout for all ages of registered voters combined in the election. For Rob Richie, the executive director of FairVote, a national organization based in Takoma Park, the higher turnout of newly-enfranchised youth voters is not surprising.
“The great opportunity this change provides is to introduce voting to young people when they are likely in a more settled situation than they often are a few years later,” says Richie, “in a community they know, and with a support network (school, family, peers) that is stronger than often the case for people who are 18 to 22. In turn, that suggests those networks ideally would be helping to mobilize participation – schools doing programs about voting and voter registration, families talking about the election, and peer-to-peer communication. The last factor was almost certainly the most important one in why Takoma Park has had such relatively high turnout for 16 and 17 year olds.”

What Would It Mean For DC?

FairVote also cites international research that suggests a lower voting age is more likely to establish a lifelong habit of civic participation. While the change appears to have had some momentum toward this goal in Takoma Park, there is little precedent for how the change would play out in an urban jurisdiction the size of DC. Efforts in community stability, youth development and various school, family and peer support networks should be pursued in tandem with passage of this legislation to maximize the civic engagement of District youth under 18.

Passing the Youth Vote Amendment Act would mark a laudable community commitment to ensuring our youth have a voice in the decision-making that directly impacts them-- and the stakes are high. With 16.1 percent unemployment for youth 16-24, the increasing frequency of episodic homelessness and housing instability, and over 8,000 youth disconnected from school, the District has an imperative to provide its young residents with the tools they need to influence change in their own lives. We believe that our youths’ voices matter, and understand that they are most effective when heard directly. Giving all youth 16 and older a vote would ensure that not only is their voice heard, but counted as well.

DCAYA thanks Takoma Park Councilmember Tim Male and City Clerk Jessie Carpenter, and Executive Director Rob Richie of FairVote, for providing commentary for this post.

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