California city decides if 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote

Ada Meighan-Thiel, a 17-year-old Culver City High School senior, performed an age-old teenage ritual as she stood on Marcelo Chamecki’s porch in the week leading up to Election Day. She was there to try and get an adult to take her and her young friends seriously.

Her arguments were rehearsed that sunny afternoon as she outlined the merits of Measure VY, a voting initiative that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city and school board elections in their hometown of Westside.

The local measure goes before voters in Tuesday’s elections. If passed, it would make Culver City one of the few U.S. municipalities where people ages 16 and older can vote. No other municipality in the country has this issue on its ballot this year.

“Measure VY would raise the local voting age here in Culver City to 16,” said Meighan-Thiel, holding a clipboard of informational flyers. “By really getting people involved in democracy from a young age, they are instilled with a value of participation so that they will be much more habitual, well-informed voters in the future.”

Chamecki, a UCLA science professor, held a coffee cup in the wooden door of his home on a tree-shaded street and listened to Meighan-Thiel’s pitch. He nodded as she explained why she should be trusted to vote. He asked questions about the implementation of the proposal.

A senior with a clipboard is talking to a man in the front door of his home

Culver City High School senior Ada Meighan-Thiel speaks with Marcelo Chamecki about a local ballot initiative to lower the voting age.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Outside some of the homes Meighan-Thiel campaigned were literal signs of the uphill battle in front of movement supporters, often referred to as Vote 16: courtyard signs pleading for the measure’s defeat. Some seemed to conjure up lyrics from Pink Floyd, the classic rock band from the days when many of the high school kids’ grandparents were young and probably also thought adults didn’t get it: “NO to VY ‘Vote 16’ Leave the kids alone!”

Chamecki at least seemed open to the youth field.

“I haven’t even decided everything yet, so that’s really helpful,” he told the teen. “I’m a bit aware of the situation, but it’s great to get more information.”

The rarity of municipalities granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote underscores how contentious the issue is.

Supporters of the movement argue that young people at 16 are mature enough to have a say in decisions that affect them. And because they can find a job and pay taxes, they should be able to choose, they add.

Opponents fear 16-year-olds are too young to fully understand political issues and too easily influenced to make informed voting decisions.

Conservatives and even some centrist Democrats also fear that allowing traditionally left-leaning young people to vote would disproportionately help progressive politicians and causes.

Years before high school activists attempted to make Vote 16 a reality in Culver City, several Maryland cities began pushing for the change. Six locations in the state allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in some elections.

The first of them, Takoma Park, approved the measure almost a decade ago. Takoma Park, like all Maryland communities that have approved the practice, is not far from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus at College Park, where much of the research and early advocacy on the topic originated.

In 2020, 49.2% of San Franciscos voted for a similar ballot measure, just short of lowering the voting age for local elections in a city of more than 800,000 people. In 2016, Berkeley became the first municipality in California to approve such a measure for school board elections, followed four years later by its neighbor Oakland in Alameda County. But the district has yet to implement the measure, which has no mechanism to force its implementation, leaving 16- and 17-year-olds still unable to vote in either city.

Except for Alameda County and Maryland, no such measures have been approved anywhere in the United States.

In Congress, Rep. Grace Meng (DN.Y.) has repeatedly introduced legislation to amend the Constitution to make 16 the national voting age. There wasn’t enough support for the proposal in the Capitol, but it would not be without precedent worldwide, with countries like Argentina, Austria and Malta allowing citizens to vote as young as 16.

Like many of her peers, Melisa Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Fremont High School in Oakland and a Vote 16 advocate, argues that giving today’s teens a voice in the political process is critical. In her view, young people like her need to clean up the messes of older generations, including climate change and gun violence.

“That’s my problem, that’s my life that I’m living through and that I should be responsible for instead of letting adults make all the decisions,” Rodriguez said. “Pushing this forward is really empowering for me and my community. To be able to do that, it just says a lot of good things about us and our future and future generations.”

Teens in cities and towns from the Bay Area to Oregon to Colorado are exploring pushes to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

In Culver City, some politicians have spoken out against the VY measure. This prosecution is being led by Steven Gourley, a retired attorney who has served as mayor, councilman and president of the school board in this city of about 40,000.

“Virtually everyone I’ve spoken to doesn’t know it’s on the ballot. When I tell them what it is, they’re like, ‘Sixteen, are you crazy?'” he said in a recent phone interview. “I speak to people who have had teens and I speak to teachers who have taught in high school and they say these people are too young to vote.”

He has submitted official forms to the city outlining his objection. Earlier this year, he set up a website to express his concerns about the proposal, listing 18 local leaders – including two other former Culver City mayors – who he says agree with him.

Gourley, a lifelong Democrat, echoed concerns from some of his old colleagues that the push to lower the voting age in Culver City was a ploy by “so-called progressives” to try to gain long-term control of local politics.

“They’re trying to expand the electorate so they can be re-elected,” he said.

Meanwhile, the city’s younger, more left-leaning Mayor Daniel Lee said he was a “passionate supporter” of Vote 16.

“Studies show that the sooner someone starts really getting involved in the electoral process, the more likely it is to be a long-term thing,” he said.

Generation Citizen, a non-partisan national civic education organization that helped launch the national Vote 16 campaign, has supported ballot initiatives to expand voting to 16- and 17-year-olds in communities in several states.

The New York-based group advises young activists and their adult advisors, helping them navigate complicated bureaucratic processes and stepping up efforts to publicize the problem. This year, all eyes are on the Golden State.

“California is poised to become a bump and a laboratory for informed democratic representation, and I think that’s what Culver City is putting up for election Tuesday,” said Andrew Wilkes, Generation Citizen’s chief policy and advocacy officer. He noted that the Culver City organization provided technology support, communications support and campaign strategy advice.

“It’s quite remarkable that you had people there during a pandemic that didn’t let it go,” Wilkes added.

For many young Vote 16 advocates, it’s an exciting topic that has brought them closer to the political process than they ever imagined in high school. For the first time, they see a way to have a voice in their community before they grow up. Its most ardent young advocates cite research showing that 16-year-olds have adult-level cognitive abilities.

As he prepared to campaign in a neighborhood on Wednesday, Miles Griffin, a 17-year-old senior at Culver City High, described suffrage in existential terms.

“I think votes and one vote in general is the issue to end all issues. Because if you can’t vote, if you don’t have a voice, you can’t make a difference,” Griffin said. “If politics affects people, then they should be able to have a say in this policy.” California city decides if 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote

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