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Oakland teens get the right to vote — then get a lesson on voter suppression

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California high school activists fought to lower the voting age to be ignored.

Ixchel Arista, pictured in October with his classmates, fought with other teenage activists to lower the voting age in Oakland, California.  But Alameda County, which runs the city's elections, never implemented the measures.
Ixchel Arista, pictured in October with his classmates, fought with other teenage activists to lower the voting age in Oakland, California. But Alameda County, which runs the city’s elections, never implemented the measures. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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OAKLAND, Calif. — If all had gone according to plan, thousands of Oakland high school students would have voted for the first time on Election Day. Many of them had worked since freshman year to lower the voting age to 16 for school board races, arguing that no one had a greater stake in who ran their district. And they won, convincing a super majority of the electorate in 2020 to extend the franchise to young teens.

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

“It was one step closer to having the right to vote,” said Rochelle Berdan, 17, who worked on the Oakland campaign. She said she felt like she and her peers had been given “false hope” that they would finally have a voice. “It’s always adults who make decisions on our behalf…we deserve to have a say in the things that affect us.”

In a cycle where many feared vote tampering, interference and intimidation from right-wing activists, this was a textbook case of voter suppression: the teenagers who had worked hard to win the franchise are denied the right to vote, a failure that also thwarted the will. 67% of voters in Oakland and 70% in Berkeley. The 2022 election did see widespread disenfranchisement – in the deep blue bay area.

Gen Z heads into midterm with Democratic boost and historic wins

Neither Alameda County Registrar Tim Dupuis nor Deputy Registrar Cynthia Cornejo returned multiple requests for comment. But Cornejo told California newspaper EdSource in August that the bureau worked on the measure but ran out of time.

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

The measures in Oakland and Berkeley did not specify a deadline for implementation. The Oakland Unified School District hired two consultants in October 2021 to help the registrar with the rollout, but the office has still not been able 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 district’s director of governance.

For teenagers like Arista, however, it’s too late.

A national fight to lower the voting age

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

“16- and 17-year-olds are legally allowed to work and drive,” Meng said in a press release. “They also pay federal income taxes. I think it is fair and just to allow them to vote as well.

For young people fighting to lower the voting age, the ballot boxes allow them to hold accountable the people who control so much of their lives – school board members. But supporters also say 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 revealed that voting is a habit: a person who starts voting when they are young is more likely to continue the practice throughout their life. A 2002 article by Professor Eric Plutzer of Pennsylvania State University in the American Political Science Review described how most people, at some point in their lives, become habitual voters – which is why Older Americans have the highest participation rates. Teen voting provisions can accelerate this change.

“16 is the ideal age to develop the habit of democratic participation,” said Andrew Wilkes, director of policy and advocacy at Generation Citizen.

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

“When these narratives begin to dominate the community, and they are amplified by a minority of voices that have a lot of time and very loud megaphones, then people who don’t think they are responsible for their own destiny in the community stay quiet,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Shaped by gun violence and climate change, Gen Z wonders if they’ll vote

Non-voting is a problem at all ages — in 2016, nearly 100 million eligible Americans did not vote for president, or about 43% of the total electorate, according to a Knight Foundation report. But it has always been particularly acute among younger voters. Since at least 1980, voters ages 18 to 29 have had the lowest turnout of any age group in presidential elections, according to the US Census Bureau.

Gen Z offers hope that this might change. In 2020, half of eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the presidential election, an 11-point jump from 2016, according to Tufts’s CIRCLE. It was one of the highest rates for this age group since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. This generation also appears to be more civically engaged. In a poll conducted by CIRCLE ahead of the 2020 election, 27% of young people aged 18-24 said they had participated in a march or protest, compared to 5% during the 2016 pre-election. There is evidence that large-scale protests can contribute to an increase in youth voter registration.

A strong youth movement

In Oakland, young activists have long known how to soften 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 outside the mayor’s door. They then pressed the school board to remove police officers from schools and helped officials develop a detailed plan to boost success for black students who face disproportionate rates of academic failure and suspension.

So it was no surprise that they pulled off the extraordinary, pushing a city council already harassed 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 call potential voters by phone. And despite the city’s reputation as a liberal hot spot, passage of the measure was hardly a guarantee: A measure in San Francisco to lower the voting age to 16 for all municipal elections failed. narrowly in 2018 and again in 2020. Youth from Culver City, CA. , also secured a measure on the ballot to lower the voting age to 16 for only school board races this year. With 16,490 votes cast, he failed by seven votes.

Gen Z on voting: “We’re the wrong generation to piss off”

For Ixchel Arista, a 17-year-old Oakland high school student who worked on the Oakland Youth Vote campaign at the start of her freshman year, the first Tuesday in November was meant to represent the culmination of years of activist efforts dedicated to the fighting against school closures, leading letter-writing campaigns. , cold calling voters to convince them to let teenagers like her vote and registering their classmates to vote.

Instead of heading to the polls, however, she went to a dance class to rehearse a routine that would be performed at a rally for climate justice. Arista says she would have voted for David Kakishiba, the executive director of a center that offers after-school programs for Oakland schools, she said.

“My other peers felt that he genuinely cared about our input,” Arista said. It was obvious, however, that other adults did not.

Other activists were also discouraged by Alameda County’s failure to enfranchise them.

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

But the teenagers didn’t have much time to cry. There was still work to be done: the students had polled their peers about what they wanted to see in their schools. Using their responses, they built a political platform, pushing for things like toilet paper and soap in bathrooms, lessons on how to deal with stress, courses in financial education and more hands-on learning. Then they made videos announcing their political platform and reminding adults to keep them in mind when voting.

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 moderator for a school board candidates’ forum she and other students helped organize at Fremont High, hoping to remind candidates to whom they were responsible. . That night, Arista pressed them for their plans to address school safety and black student success in front of an audience that included dozens of students who showed up despite not being able to vote.

“It’s sad,” Arista said before the event, wearing baggy vintage jeans and Air Jordan sneakers. But she said she was encouraged because students could vote in the upcoming elections. “We know it’s going to happen at some point.”

On election day, Rodriguez did not mope. Instead, she headed to an after-school leadership club where she and her classmates began imagining what they wanted the Fremont High of the future to look like.

Then they set to work to make it a reality.

“We will always have a voice,” Rodriguez said, “whether they like it or not.”

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