Saturday, April 17, 2021
News + Politics The case for the youth vote

The case for the youth vote

Will the mayor oppose a plan to let 16-and 17-year olds vote in local elections? Everyone else seems to be getting on board


The Board of Supes met with the Youth Commission Tuesday, and the biggest question around a potential charter amendment allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote was simple:

Who is going to vote against it?

Youth organizers gather outside of City Hall for the hearing on a measure to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections
Youth organizers gather outside of City Hall for the hearing on a measure to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections

The Youth Commission members made a clear and compelling presentation. Among other things, Commissioner Jillian Wu pointed out, voting is habitual. Research shows that people who register and vote early tend to vote regularly for the rest of their lives.

The age issue is also critical: A lot of people who turn 18 are in a period of transition. That’s when you leave home, go to college, get a job, travel … and all of those things tend to undermine the likelihood that you are going to register to vote.

I turned 18 seven months before I left my parent’s home, forever. I moved from North Tarrytown NY to Middletown, CT, and for four years, my home was at Wesleyan University, in a town I knew nothing about. I had registered in North Tarrytown, but I never actually got to vote in a local election there, and all of a sudden, I was in a new community, and I wasn’t sure where I was voting. It wasn’t until I arrived in San Francisco, at the age of 22, that I was really in the loop and voting regularly.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had registered at 16, but I know I went to School Board meetings and complained, and if I had been a voter then I would probably have re-registered when I got to Middletown and would have been involved in community politics, not just campus politics.

“Sixteen-year-olds are embedded in the community,” Wu said.

She also noted that a lot of young people live in households where the parents are immigrants and might not be eligible to vote. Others may be legal voters, but don’t register.

In fact, the evidence shows, allowing younger people to vote encourages older household members to vote.

John Arntz, the director of the Department of Elections, said that there would be some issues around ballots: The city can’t change state and federal rules, so the city would have to offer local-only ballots to younger voters.

But as Sup. Scott Wiener pointed out, the city already has to sort ballots for party primaries, where Democrats, Republicans, Greens and other parties have their own rules. Offering local ballots to some voters won’t be a big deal.

Sup. Malia Cohen has been among the most dubious, and in the past has said that she isn’t sure that 16-year-olds are mentally mature enough to make political decisions. She challenged Arntz on how much this would cost; he said that he couldn’t place a figure on it.

She also asked whether the city could actually legally do this – the state Constitution sets the voting age at 18. But the city has for years challenged the limits of state law, and the City Attorney’s Office says that there’s a legally defensible position in favor of this.

But the Youth Commission members and the testimony that young people presented was not only emotional and compelling – it was based on facts. And in the end, supes like Aaron Peskin and London Breed said they were (almost) convinced. Neither of them would sign on as a cosponsor, but they said they would vote to put the measure on the November ballot. So did Sup. Katy Tang.

So there clearly six votes when this comes up next week, and it will make the ballot. It ought to be unanimous, but there are still some (including Cohen, and Mark Farrell) who don’t seem ready to go along.

I am all for youth voting, and I freely admit my biases. I decided more than a decade ago that same-sex marriage would soon be the law of the land when I saw the demographics: Almost everyone under 30 was in favor (even Republicans). The people most likely to be in opposition were over 60. The strongest support for Bernie Sanders came from youth – and if 16-year-olds, who are worried about college tuition and student loan debt and whether they will ever get jobs that pay enough to cover the rent, were allowed to vote in national elections, he would be the nominee and quite possibly the next president.

But the biggest thing for me is not just the voting, it’s the organizing. When high-school students can vote, high-school students will form political clubs, and candidates for office will have to talk to them, and a new generation will start much earlier getting involved in city politics.

The School Board supports this unanimously. The Board of Supes could do that, too. Or a few members could try to find excuses why to oppose it.

And once it qualifies for the ballot, what will the mayor and his allies do? Can you see Ed Lee opposing a measure to increase the youth vote? Who’s going to put up money against it?

A telling moment in the city, and it’s coming up soon.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. If you couldn’t figure out where to vote in college, you most likely shouldn’t have voted.

  2. The smoking age has been raised to 21 and folks want to lower the voting age to 16. We live in strange times.

  3. If the argument is that “voting is habitual”, and this is aimed at school kids, then a sensible thing to do is institute “voting” (non-binding) on school campuses.

    In fact, it need not be confined to local races only – it could extend to CA and US races! And such an enviornment would foster the ‘habit’ of voting, act as a poll of Youth opinion, and suggest ways to increase participation.

    Why is such a program not already in existence?

  4. I ‘suggested’ to John that he might consider reintroducing a measure allowing ‘permanent legal residents’ to vote, at least if only in ‘local’ elections for now. I also said it would be cool if I was specifically excluded (what arrogance) if that was a ‘problem’, and anyway ‘one man’s vote’ ain’t worth a single bean in this crazy corporatocracy, I’m quite content to stay on the outside kicking in some shit.

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