For students in Palo Alto who wish to criticize or suggest school policies, there are only a few options available. They can email Board of Education members, write an editorial for their school newspaper or attend and speak at board meetings. Beyond that, they have no power to affect the decisions made on issues like their schedules, weighted grades or mental health services.
Now, students at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools are mobilizing to demand that their voices — and their votes — be recognized.
Vote16 Palo Alto, an offshoot of a national movement, launched a petition on July 13 to lower the voting age to 16 for Palo Alto Unified's school board elections. The students who drafted the petition are mostly upperclassmen at Paly enrolled in the journalism program, including staff of The Campanile, the student newspaper; Verde, the features magazine; Viking, the sports magazine; and Anthro, an activism-oriented magazine.
"There wasn't one big event that inspired this campaign. It was really the accumulation of little frustrations for students who repeatedly just couldn't join the conversation about decisions affecting their own education," said Palo Alto High senior Miranda Li, who is one of the students behind the petition. "It's frustrating that these issues are affecting students the most, but they don't have any say in the actual decisions that are being made."
This sentiment was echoed by Frida Rivera, another Paly senior involved with the petition.
"If you went to one of the school board meetings about a big topic like weighted GPAs, so many people show up, and it's all parents discussing and voicing their opinions," Rivera said. "It's crazy to think that it's only being discussed by the adults."
The movement to lower the voting age is gaining nationwide support. Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., became the first city in the nation to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections back in 2013. In the Bay Area, Berkeley passed Measure Y1 in 2016, lowering the voting age for school board elections to 16, and a measure that would have allowed 16-year-olds in San Francisco to vote in all local elections made it onto the 2018 ballot, but did not pass.
For the Palo Alto students behind the petition, 16 is a natural age to introduce voting rights for local elections.
"Sixteen is a good baseline," Li said. "It's a really big number in American culture because you can drive, you can work, you can pay taxes. It's when local politics really start to affect you, and I think it's when you become more educated about our politics."
At 18, most first-time voters are no longer in high school, observed Paly senior Yael Sarig. "It's fine to want to make a change for future generations, but if there's a pressing problem, 16- and 17-year-olds are the ones who are the most exposed to that."
Palo Alto Board of Education member Shounak Dharap, who graduated from Gunn High School in 2008, views allowing students to vote in local elections as a necessary next step for the district.
"If we expect our policies as a school district to support the long-term success of district students, then district students have to actually be able to participate in the democratic process behind these policies," Dharap said. "I've seen that our high school juniors and seniors are already totally engaged on local issues through the avenues that they have available to them, whether that's student representatives on the school board, youth council, student government, student publications, and so nobody can really deny that when the 16- and 17-year-olds in our community really engage on local issues, they do it with the same sort of critical and thoughtful analyses that we expect from voting adults."
Historically, young voters have some of the lowest turnout rates in the voting population, but in the first election after the voting age was lowered in Takoma Park, the voter turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds was four times higher than that of the general population.
"I think it makes kids pay more attention to local politics, which I think is really important," said George Ashford, a high school senior in Takoma Park. "I think being able to engage young people in local politics and show them that they can influence it is really important, and it's done a great job of doing that from what I can tell."
Ashford didn't live in Takoma Park when the voting age was lowered, but he's witnessed the impact the change has had on the community. In 2017, he helped found the local Youth City Council, which gives high school students an avenue to work with the City Council on issues that affect young people. According to Ashford, many residents see voting by 16- and 17-year-olds as a positive thing.
"For the most part, people are just excited that youth are engaged in politics at all," Ashford said. "They kind of have an expectation that we don't care, that we're not going to vote anyway, but when they see that that's not true, they like that. It gives them hope for our generation."
While Palo Alto Board of Education member Melissa Baten Caswell agrees that the lack of student involvement in school policies is a problem, she is skeptical about granting voting rights to students in the district, saying that she would prefer to hold more town hall-like forums for students to voice their opinions.
"In the abstract, I'm totally for (lowering the voting age) because I do think the school board impacts the school, which impacts kids every day," Baten Caswell said. However, she said, she worries about the power that teachers have to influence their students, and fears that kids will feel pressure to vote for a candidate or policy that the teacher prefers.
"I think we have incredibly smart kids and they're exposed to a wide range of things," she said. "But it's hard to say what you believe if you think it's going to influence your grades. I hate to put students in that position."
Still, students say that merely seeking more student input on school board measures is not enough.
"The actual power that comes behind having a vote is significantly more than just having an opinion and expressing it," Sarig said.
Even when a city approves a lower voting age, there can be hurdles to making it a reality. Berkeley's measure passed in 2016, but the city is still working with the county and the Alameda County Registrar of Voters to implement the new law for the upcoming election, a task complicated by the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds require a separate ballot from the rest of the voting population.
There are some potential solutions, according to Josh Daniels, a former Berkeley School Board member and election lawyer who drafted Measure Y1. Those include creating a separate ballot and voter roll for 16- and 17-year-olds at each precinct and training all poll workers to help young voters fill out their ballots. Another option could be to assign all 16- and 17-year-olds to a youth-specific precinct, where a subset of specially trained poll workers would be available to assist them with any problems. Another would be to have mail-only elections for 16- and 17-year-olds, cutting out the need to train poll workers altogether. Three years after the voting age was lowered, it still isn't clear which approach the city will take.
"We haven't done the full analysis of all the different issues like finance, logistics and legal," Daniels said. "At this point, we're just being open-minded to see whichever one makes the most sense."
Jeannie Lythcott, the co-director of voter services for the League of Women Voters in Palo Alto, has worked to preregister over 1,000 high school students in Palo Alto to vote. She said that she fears that allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for every issue may be overwhelming.
"If they were only able to vote for the school board, that's a nicely narrow, attainable goal," she said. However, she would be willing to support students who were trying to vote for the first time.
The Vote16 students aim to work with school board members and Santa Clara County to get their proposal on the 2020 ballot. Their petition currently has over 200 signatures, a little under half their goal of 500. If the proposal makes it onto the ballot, it will be up to the community to decide the outcome.
"Local politics affect 16-year-olds as much as anyone else," Li said. "It's time for them to get engaged in their communities."