Paly, Gunn students join national movement to lower voting age | News | Palo Alto Online |


Paly, Gunn students join national movement to lower voting age

Petition seeks to give 16-year-olds right to vote in school board elections

From left, Palo Alto High School students Rachel Owens, 16, Lucy Nemerov, 17, Miranda Li, 16, Antonia Mou, 16, Michaela Seah, 16, Anna Meyer, 16 and Kate O'Connor, 17, plan community outreach as they strategize their campaign for the Vote16 petition at the Rinconada Library in Palo Alto on July 31. Photo by Veronica Weber.

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."


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15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2019 at 10:13 am

Whereas I respect the interest of 16 year olds willing to be able to vote in school board elections, I am very much against this idea for two reasons.

The first is that although they do have more experience than I probably do in what services are available to them, I doubt very much that any of the things they are able to vote on will make very much to them because by the time they come into effect, these particular 16 and 17 year olds have probably graduated and will not make a difference to their school careers.

The second is that I am very wary of any proposal to allow 16 year olds who have never paid taxes, budgeted their finances, paid rent or a mortgage, etc. to fully understand the complex ideas surrounding their choice. We are talking about things that just may mean the average household paying substantial more taxes, bonds or parcel taxes, and for what?

UC Berkeley is just starting a course for "adulting" to teach college age students how to file taxes and various other aspects of being independent adults. It is quite apparent to me that our "living skills" classes teach more about sex and drugs than skills on how to live in an adult world. I would guess that the majority of our Gunn and Paly students do not hold after school jobs, do not fully understand the implications of credit cards, of debt, or of how to balance a checkbook. I would say that they may not even do chores around the house or even check the oil in a car.

Some may say that these things are not necessary to make a decision on who should be on the school board, but if school elections for class president, etc. are anything to go by, the one who gives the most cookies, t shirts or empty promises are much more likely to win students votes than anyone with any real manifesto.

If students want more say, then why not increase the scope of the student school board members. These members should, in my opinion, be elected democratically by the student body and their comments at PAUSD board meetings should be valued and perhaps acted on more than at present.

When I think back to myself at 16, or even my kids at that age, yes the average 16 year old has very strong opinions and these opinions are part of the maturing process. However, 10 years later, with more life experience and more awareness of life outside the high school bubble, they are much more likely to have changed than at any other 10 year period in a person's life.

11 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2019 at 11:16 am

While I am dubious that 16-year-olds will be allowed to vote anytime in the near future, I am glad to see teenagers getting more interested and involved in government and community issues. I hope they can enlarge the scope of their project to include education and publicity about issues that affect our city and city government. How about producing some town halls, candidate debates and online information sources, like what the League of Women Voters does?

8 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2019 at 1:25 pm

This is a terrible idea -- in large part because it's clear that children this age have virtually no knowledge of US history, the US governmental structure and virtually no common sense. It's also clear that youths at this age are likely to simply parrot their parents views, and those of their teachers.

It would make a lot more sense to rescind the ill-considered decision to allow 18-year olds to vote, and instead raise the voting age to 26. At least by that age, some of these children would have been able to work for a few years, get a chance to look at their pay checks and wonder why the government is taking such a large chunk, and they might ever by then be homeowners and parents -- which gives everyone a new perspective on the world.

No .. this idea is definitely a non-starter!

14 people like this
Posted by Recent Paly Alum
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2019 at 2:09 pm

Perhaps the worst part of beign a student in Palo Alto is constantly being told that your voice and opinion is valued but never being truly heard. There are very few avenues for students to impact change on their community. The same way the students can select their own class presidents, they should allow to have influence on the board that governs their district. 16 year olds are most definitly old enough to understand the intracicies of a small town school board election. They are, after all, students at some of the states most competitive and rigourous schools. The students, who are among the most impacted groups of decisions made by our school board, therefore need to be able to have a say in who is in the governing body. They aren't asking to vote on serious statewide ballots or presidential elections, rather a sigular local election. Let them vote!

9 people like this
Posted by Great Idea
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2019 at 4:51 pm

@Resident wrote:

The first is that although they do have more experience than I probably do in what services are available to them, I doubt very much that any of the things they are able to vote on will make very much to them because by the time they come into effect, these particular 16 and 17 year olds have probably graduated and will not make a difference to their school careers.


@Resident, surely you can't believe this? Would you also favor denying voting rights to those over 90 because they will likely be gone before anything they care about actually makes a difference.

Let's face it, 18 is an arbitrary age. There are some 10 year olds who know much more about local and world affairs than 40 year olds. In GENERAL, 16-17 year olds will know less about world affairs than older people but I think for things like school and local issues, they know more than the average person. Granted, they will likely bring a different perspective than adults, but isn't that the point.

Think of this proposal like a driving learner's permit, where students can get some experience voting before they turn 18. I think a more engaged and interested electorate is a great thing.

Kudos to the students who are pushing this.

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