The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Council declines to take up bill to lower voting age to 16

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Abubakr Uqdah, 18, left, and Contessa Martin, 17, right, react as a bill to lower the voting age to 16 is tabled by the D.C. Council. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council indefinitely delayed action on legislation to lower the voting age to 16, dealing a blow to efforts to make the nation’s capital the first jurisdiction to allow minors to cast ballots in presidential contests.

Lawmakers voted 7 to 6 to table the bill, imperiling its chances before an end-of-year deadline to pass legislation.

The voting bill hit a setback after a pair of lawmakers who helped introduce the legislation — Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large) — flipped positions and declined to vote for it.

Also voting to delay action were Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had backed the proposal but distanced herself from the measure before the vote.

The bill would have allowed ­16- and 17-year-olds to cast ballots in the District starting in 2020. Census data suggests more than 10,000 new voters were eligible.

Several smaller cities allow minors to vote in local elections, including Takoma Park, Riverdale Park, Greenbelt and Hyattsville in Maryland.

But no other community in the country allows minors to vote in federal elections.

Charles Allen, the D.C. Council member who wrote the legislation, said it was time to expand political power to young people, whose lives are affected by issues including climate change, education and gun safety, but they “have no power, because they cannot vote.”

Allen, a Democrat and father of young children who represents Ward 6, said extending the vote is a proven way to grow more adult voters, particularly important in a city that has struggled with low turnout rates.

Voter turnout plunges in Wards 7 and 8

And he noted that 75 percent of teens 16 to 18 in the city are people of color, saying that expanding the franchise would strengthen the political voice of those communities.

“We have a moment in front of us that will recognize and respect the value and power that these young voices have,” Allen said. “The time is here for us to take a big step and a bold step.”

Opponents say 16- and 17-year-olds cannot make informed decisions.

“There is no large city in the United States that has a voting age lower than 18,” Mendelson said after the measure was tabled. “My own view is the reason why it’s always been for adults is because of the correlation between adulthood, experience, perspective and maturity.”

Expanding voting rights to minors was the latest high-profile issue before a city legislature that has taken a progressive turn in recent years, approving assisted suicide, a $15 minimum wage and one of the most generous paid family leave laws in the country. Last week, Bowser said one of her first priorities for 2019 would be to press for full legalization of recreational marijuana.

But the voting rights measure faced a behind-the-scenes effort by several lawmakers — including Mendelson — to squash it.

“There is significant unreadiness on behalf of some of the council members, a majority of the council members,” Evans said.

Evans tried twice to table the motion. His motion to delay action fell one vote short early in the afternoon, when White was among the bill’s supporters.

But in the hours between the first and second votes, White asked his Facebook followers for their opinions. Most encouraged him to vote for the bill, but he seemed skeptical that lowering the voting age would improve voting habits.

In explaining her reversal, Bonds said that parents were confused about the bill and that she needed to educate constituents.

A group of 20 teenagers who were lobbying for the bill came to the council chambers after school and looked disappointed as its prospects collapsed. Allen reassured them from the dais that the fight would continue.

Joining Allen to back the measure were Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).

In an interview, Allen said he’s not giving up.

“It’s not dead,” he said. “But something has to change for the votes to be able to bring it back. Clearly, I’ve got some colleagues that are afraid of change. Change can be scary.”

Helisa Cruz, a 16-year-old who arrived at the chambers in the afternoon, said she spent Tuesday morning encouraging her friends to contact lawmakers.

Cruz says she would like to vote for D.C. candidates who are committed to preventing the displacement of longtime residents, reducing gun violence and improving the education system.

The high school junior makes time for political activism on top of dance practice and five Advanced Placement classes at Basis D.C. charter school and joined hundreds of thousands at the Women’s March and March for Our Lives.

“They always encourage you to vote at the end of those events, and it has you thinking, ‘Oh, there’s nothing I can do,’ ” said Cruz, a D.C. native and Brookland resident. “There’s nothing equivalent or equal to voting.”

Allen says voting would help young people form the habit while they are still at home, rather than out on their own or at college, when they may feel disconnected from the community or have to navigate the complexities of voting absentee.

D.C. teenagers weigh in on whether they should have the right to vote

Allen introduced similar legislation in 2015; it went nowhere. He was inspired to revive his efforts this year after the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school sparked a youth-led political movement that culminated in the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. Scores of young people testified before the D.C. Council in favor of the legislation at a June hearing.

Allen says he chose 16 as a cutoff because people can drive, work legally and pay taxes at that age.

Takoma Park, Md., which borders the District, in 2013 became the first municipality to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections and referendums. Hyattsville, Riverdale Park and Greenbelt — towns in Prince George’s County — followed suit, as did Berkeley, Calif., for school board races.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to vote for people 18 and older but does not prohibit states from setting a lower age.

Although young people have been a key part of the Democratic coalition, lowering the voting age in the nation’s capital may not affect presidential politics, because the District has consistently voted blue.