Palo Alto high schoolers urge city council to lower voting age to 16

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In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, became the first city to lower the voting age to 16 in local elections as part of a broader goal to expand voter rights. In the wake of this change, the national campaign Vote16 USA was established in 2015 with the intent of spreading this policy nationwide. In 2019, the campaign arrived in Palo Alto. 

Founded by then 16-year-old Miranda Li, the original goal of Vote16 Palo Alto was to lower the voting age in school board elections. When Li was a junior at Palo Alto High School (Paly), she frequently attended its board meetings. 

“While I was there, I was really shocked at all of the decisions being made, and the fact that students didn’t have a voice in what was going on,” Li said. “There needs to be a way for students to express their voices.” 

Summer 2019 was a catalyst for uniting students to lower the school board election’s voting age to 16. 

“The initial reaction was pretty positive,” Li said. 

However, throughout the summer of contacting school board members and local officials, Li said the campaign “struggled while figuring out the logistics to actually lower the voting age for school board elections.” 

According to James Williams, a Palo Alto legal consultant who counseled Vote16, Palo Alto’s school district is a state entity, which means Vote16 would have to draft a state bill in order to lower the voting age in school board elections. 

Rachel Owens, the current president of Vote16, said that because “Palo Alto’s school board boundaries and city council boundaries don’t line up,” they have taken “a two-pronged approach right now. One half is lowering the voting age to 16 for city council elections, and the other half is pursuing a state bill that would allow school districts to opt into lowering the voting age to 16.”

The long-term goal to propose a statewide legislation is set for January 2021. The immediate focus of Vote16 is to convince the city council to vote the measure onto the ballot.

“There are several directions [our campaign] could go in,” Li said. “To place a measure on the ballot, we have to get a majority vote from city council first.”

The initial months of the campaign spent working through logistics have caused a recent push by campaign members to appear at city council meetings during a period called oral communications. Oral communications is a time during a city council meeting in which community members can address the board with matters of local relevance. 

The deadline for measures to pass onto the 2020 ballot is in August. City council members are expected to vote on all issues proposed for the ballot prior to this deadline. The last city council meeting was on June 23, and Vote16 had yet to make the agenda. Consequently, council members did not have the opportunity to vote on the measure.

In lieu of making the agenda, approximately 15 members of the Vote16 campaign spoke during oral communications. During this, they urged the council to hold a “special meeting” during the recess period before the ballot’s deadline. This meeting would allow city council members to vote the measure onto the ballot. Students further provided arguments advocating for lowering the voting age.

“Lowering the voting age can turn into long-term voter turnout because voting is habitual, and 16 is a much better time than 18 to establish the habit of voting,” said Antonia Mou, vice president of Vote16 Palo Alto. She said high school provides a more stable environment for a first-time voter, rather than an 18-year-old who is at a transitional period in their life right out of high school. 

A common justification was that teenagers in the Palo Alto community have little say in local matters.

“When budget restrictions threaten to cut community services such as the proposed $400,000 reduction to teen services, I do not have a vote. I am forced to watch as city council members decide the fate of these programs,” said Charlize Nguyen, a rising senior at Paly. “City council members that I do not elect continually affect my life and the lives of my peers.”

Students also challenged the “common misconception” that teenagers are not well-informed or involved in the political climate, and that they therefore cannot vote maturely. 

Amy Yu, a supporter of Vote16, posed the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of the “predominant involvement” youth voices have in “social justice issues affecting the Palo Alto community.” Regarding teenagers’ knowledge of other local affairs, “16- and 17-year-olds know better than anyone how important bike paths and transportation guidelines are for the safety of our community,” Yu said.

In response to the meeting, council member Greg Tanaka said that the speakers “got people’s attention for sure, and if anyone in the council didn’t know about Vote16, they do now.”

About two days before Vote16 addressed the board on June 23, members of the campaign, including Li and Owens, met with Tanaka. 

“I think they didn’t know the mechanics of getting this onto the ballot,” Tanaka said. “It is sad because by the time they talked to me, it was only two days before our last [city council] meeting.” 

He described the meeting as informative and said he “found it very intriguing because our democracy only works when people participate. So I liked to see that youth wanted to participate.”

His primary concern with the campaign was the minimal direct contact they had with council members prior to the meeting. 

“I had the advantage of speaking with them before, and my fellow council members didn’t,” Tanaka said. “At this point, it is up to the mayor whether this goes on the ballot.” 

Mayor Adrian Fine declined to comment, saying he did not have time to discuss Vote16 with The Daily. 

Owens said the mayor has expressed general support for the campaign, but has not made any affirmations as to whether it should go on the ballot. 

Campaign members have made contact with three council members personally, according to Owens. Two of them were mayor Fine and council member Tanaka, and the other was council member Alison Cormack. 

“I would be supportive of age 17 for city council elections based on which portions of the civics and history classes they’ve participated in, and where they are in their education,” Cormack said. She has been in contact with Vote16 since August 2019, during which the campaign’s goal was to lower the voting age in school board elections. 

Cormack supported reducing the school board election’s voting age to 16 based on her observations of her own teenage children as well as other students in the community. 

However, Cormack is not in favor of lowering the voting age in local elections to 16, suggesting instead that 17 is the better option. 

“17-year-olds, with the right amount of support from their schools, their families [and] the community, would be able to make good decisions,” she said. “16-year-olds wouldn’t have the benefit of the experience of the full Civics year; they might not yet have had American History.”

The year of Civics and possibly American History referred to by Cormack are classes students typically take in their junior year of high school. 

“There is a lot that [students] learn in school between ages 16 and 17 that I think would be helpful to [them] making decisions as they become voters,” she said. 

According to Owens, although Cormack has “shown reservations about the idea,” she “has been helpful in providing us with information and guiding us through the process.” 

Vote16’s hope is that the council will hold a special meeting to place its measure on the ballot. 

“As of right now, we don’t know whether or not that is going to happen,” Owens said. 

Tanaka also confirmed that it’s uncertain whether or not a meeting will be held. 

“I couldn’t quite tell whether they were a bit late, or [if] there wasn’t enough support. It could be a combination of both,” he said. “I think that for myself, and other city council members who are here, [having another meeting during recess] is not a big deal. But staff goes on vacation so they really don’t want to have another meeting during the break.”  

Cormack said the possibility of having a meeting is unlikely: “We have three crises going on at the moment: a health crisis, an economic crisis and a social justice crisis. So it is fair to say that our community is taxed to respond to each of these three crises at the same time.” 

As part of the city council, Tanaka plans to encourage a meeting over the recess, while students of Vote16 continue contact with council members to guide their campaign onto the 2020 ballot. If Vote16 reaches the ballot by August, it will have about two months to reach the public. Voting centers are scheduled to open between Oct. 24 and Nov. 2. 

The general belief of why this meeting is so important, according to Owens, is that “it is the right and the role of the community in Palo Alto to decide whether or not to lower the voting age. So I think that it’s the city council’s duty to give the public that opportunity by placing it on the ballot.”

If the meeting does not take place before August, Li said Vote16 will “pursue an initiative measure,” which is when a campaign gathers enough signatures from registered voters to pressure the council into enacting a law, or placing it up for public vote. 

Another possibility is for the measure to be placed on the 2022 ballot. 

“We honestly don’t know if we need to prepare for placing this on the ballot in 2020 or 2022, Owens said. “Right now we are focusing on developing a strong team. We need this team even if we do not have to continue the city bill into 2022, because the state goal will definitely stretch out longer.”

If the measure is placed on the ballot, there are few tellings as to whether or not the Palo Alto community would vote in favor of it. Vote16 has refrained from spreading its outreach to the community, as Owens said, “We don’t want to begin heavy outreach now and then say, ‘Sorry guys, we’re going to have to wait until 2022.’”

Still, Vote16 has given presentations to local organizations in the past, and Owens said people typically “greet it with surprise and a bit of shock because it’s a very new idea. But once we have gone through some main arguments, people are very receptive.” However, she continued, “If we are not able to complete enough outreach, there is a possibility people won’t be receptive to the idea.”

Hypothetically, if the measure goes to the ballot, Vote16 would begin the process of campaigning through public forums and polling prospective student voters. Vote16 would also work with the board of educators to “improve Paly civic education to include more information about local issues and candidates so if this were to be passed, students would have a built in [outlet] for information leading up to the polls.”

For the long-term goal of a state-wide legislation, the campaign is hoping to partner with Gen Up, an organization that advocates for education equality. 

Currently, Vote16 plans to host an informational meeting on July 11 to answer any questions community members may have, and to outline their goal as a campaign.

“I see the passion that they have, and I want it to be successful. I want to at least give them a chance,” Tanaka said. “I think that people at [their] age are more capable than most people think.”

Contact Emily Stull at stull242 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Emily Stull is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.