These teens won the right to vote. Their county disenfranchised them.

High school activists in California fought hard to lower the voter age only to be ignored.

Ixchel Arista, pictured high-fiving classmates in October, fought with other teen activists to lower the voting age in Oakland, Calif. But Alameda County, which runs the city's election, never implemented the measures. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

OAKLAND, Calif. — If all had gone as planned, thousands of high-schoolers in Oakland would have cast their ballots for the first time on Election Day. Many of them had worked since their freshman year to lower the voting age to 16 for school board races, arguing that no one had a higher stake in who led their district. And they won, persuading a supermajority of the electorate in 2020 to expand voting rights to younger teens.

But Alameda County, which runs the city’s elections, never implemented the measure. It also failed to deliver on a 2016 ballot initiative from Berkeley that did the same thing. So, Tuesday passed like election days past: with 16- and 17-year-olds watching from the sidelines.

“It was a step closer to a right to vote,” said Rochelle Berdan, 17, who worked on the Oakland campaign. They said their peers were given “false hope” that the high-schoolers would finally have a voice. “It’s always the adults making decisions on behalf of us. … We deserve to have a say in the things that impact us.”

In a cycle when many feared vote tampering, interference and intimidation from right-wing activists, it was a textbook case of voter suppression: Teens who had worked hard to win the franchise were denied the right to vote, a failure that also thwarted the will of 67 percent of voters in Oakland and 70 percent in Berkeley. The 2022 election did see widespread disenfranchisement — in the deep-blue Bay Area.

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Neither Alameda County Registrar Tim Dupuis nor Deputy Registrar Cynthia Cornejo returned multiple requests for comment. But Cornejo told the California education news outlet EdSource in August that the office had worked on the measure but had run out of time.

“In a perfect world, this would be easy to implement. But we want to make sure we do it right,” Cornejo said. “I completely understand how frustrated people are. We all hoped this would be done sooner. … We’ve done a lot of work on this already, and it’s going well. We’re very close.”

The measures in Oakland and Berkeley didn’t specify a deadline for implementation. Oakland Unified School District hired two consultants in October 2021 to help the registrar with the rollout, but the office was still unable to complete its work in time for ballots to be issued. The office expects to be ready in time for the 2024 election, according to Joshua R. Daniels, the chief governance officer for the district.

For teens like Arista, though, it’s too late.

A nationwide fight to lower the voting age

Activists across the country are fighting to lower the voting age for local elections, but they have succeeded only in the Bay Area and in Maryland, where five cities — Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Greenbelt, Riverdale Park and Mount Rainer — permit 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. Last year, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) proposed a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 16 for federal elections.

“16- and 17-year-olds are legally permitted to work and drive,” Meng said in a news release. “They also pay federal income taxes. I believe that it is right and fair to also allow them to vote.”

For young people fighting to lower the voting age, the ballot box lets them hold people who control so much of their lives — members of the school board — to account. But proponents also say that it could improve overall turnout in future elections. They point out that 16- and 17-year-olds often still live at home and attend school, giving them access to adults who can help them register to vote.

Research by political scientists has found that voting is a habit: A person who starts casting ballots while young is likelier to continue the practice for life. A 2002 paper by Pennsylvania State University professor Eric Plutzer in the American Political Science Review described how most people, at some point in their lives, become habitual voters — which is why the oldest Americans have the highest turnout rates. The teen-voting provisions can jump-start that shift.

“At 16, that’s the ideal age to develop the habit for democratic participation,” said Andrew Wilkes, the chief policy and advocacy officer of Generation Citizen.

A more engaged electorate is also less likely to fall prey to extremism and conspiracy theories, because there are more moderating voices, argues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

“When these narratives start to dominate the community, and it’s amplified by a minority of the voices that happen to have a lot of time and really loud megaphones, then people who don’t think they’re responsible for their own destiny in the community remain silent,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

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Nonparticipation is a problem across all ages — in 2016, nearly 100 million eligible Americans did not cast a ballot for president, about 43 percent of the total electorate, according to a report by the Knight Foundation. But it has historically been particularly acute among the youngest voters. Since at least 1980, voters 18-29 have had the lowest turnout among all age groups in presidential elections, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Generation Z offers hope that this could change. In 2020, half of eligible people between the ages of 18 to 29 voted in the presidential election, an 11-point jump from 2016, according to Tufts’s CIRCLE. That was among the highest rates for that age group since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. This generation also appears to be more civically engaged. In a poll CIRCLE took before the 2020 election, 27 percent of young people aged 18 to 24 said they had attended a march or protest, up from 5 percent in pre-election 2016. There is evidence that large-scale protests can contribute to an increase in youth voter registration.

A youth movement with muscle

In Oakland, young activists have long known how to flex their power. After the murder of George Floyd, teenagers organized the city’s major rallies against police brutality, including a 1,000-person march that ended at the doorstep of the mayor. They then pressed the school board into removing police officers from schools and helped officials craft a detailed plan to boost the achievement of Black students who face disproportionate rates of academic failure and suspension.

So it was unsurprising when they pulled off the extraordinary, pushing a city council already harried by the pandemic to add a ballot measure lowering the voting age. To avoid spreading the coronavirus, they skipped door-to-door canvassing, opting instead to dial prospective voters by phone. And despite the city’s reputation as a liberal hotspot, passing the measure was hardly a guarantee: A measure in San Francisco to lower the voting age to 16 for all city elections narrowly failed in 2018 and again in 2020. Youth in Culver City, Calif., also got a measure on the ballot to lower the voting age to 16 for city and school board races this year. The measure lost by 16 votes.

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For Ixchel Arista, a 17-year-old Oakland High senior who worked on the Oakland Youth Vote campaign beginning her freshman year, the first Tuesday in November was supposed to represent the culmination of years of activist efforts spent fighting school closures, spearheading letter campaigns, cold-calling voters to persuade them to allow teens like her to vote and registering classmates to vote.

Instead of heading to the polls, though, she went to dance class to rehearse a routine that would be performed at a climate justice rally. Arista says she would have cast her vote for David Kakishiba, the executive director of a center that provides after school programming for Oakland schools, she said.

“My other peers felt that he actually cared about our input,” Arista said. It was apparent, though, that other adults did not.

Other activists, too, were crestfallen by Alameda County’s failure to enfranchise them.

“I don’t think they made it a priority,” said Melisa Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior and youth activist. “Maybe because it was mainly from students.”

But the teens did not have much time to mourn. There was still more work to be done: The students had polled their peers about what they wanted to see in their schools. Using their responses, they put together a policy platform, pressing for things like toilet paper and soap in bathrooms, lessons on how to deal with stress, financial literacy classes and more hands-on learning. Then they made videos advertising their policy platform, and reminding adults to keep them in mind when they cast their ballots.

Exactly four weeks before the election, on a Tuesday in October, Arista spent much of her school day staring at index cards with microscopic texts. She was nervous as she prepared to serve as a moderator for a school board candidate forum she and other students helped organize at Fremont High, hoping to remind the candidates to whom they were responsible. That night, Arista pressed them for their plans to address school safety and Black student achievement in front of an audience that included dozens of students who showed up spite not being able to cast a ballot.

“It is sad,” Arista said before the event, dressed in loose vintage jeans and Air Jordan sneakers. But she said she was buoyed because students would be able to vote in coming elections. “We know it’s going to happen at some point.”

On Election Day, Rodriguez didn’t mope. Instead, she headed to an after-school leadership club where she and her classmates began envisioning what they wanted the Fremont High of the future to look like.

Then, they got to work to make it a reality.

“We’re always going to have a voice,” Rodriguez said, “whether they like it or not.”

correction

A previous version of this article improperly described a ballot initiative in Culver City, Calif., to lower the voting age, and the outcome of the race. This version has been updated.

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