San Francisco Supervisor Proposes to Let 16-Year-Olds Vote

Vehicles travel across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 7, 2008.

Photographer: Erin Lubin/Bloomberg News

For many young people, turning 16 grants coveted rights to drive a car and start a first job. In San Francisco, it may mean helping to choose the mayor and other city leaders.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos last week offered a proposal to lower the voting age to 16. He will seek to put the measure on the ballot this November or next year.

“In a lot of ways, young people have been showing that they have the ability to shape the world they live in,” Avalos said in a telephone interview. “It makes a lot of sense that we honor that work with helping them to elect the people representing them.”

There’s precedent for allowing younger teens to vote in municipal elections. The Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, authorized 16-year-olds to vote two years ago, followed by its neighbor, Hyattsville, in January. California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law in September that allows those 16 and older to pre-register to vote at 18.

Avalos’s plan would allow teens to vote only in city elections, not for state or federal candidates, including president.

“It’s a spectacularly bad idea,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “Sixteen-year-olds aren’t ready to vote. They lack the knowledge, the intellectual maturity and the judgment.”

If a 16-year-old can drive, get a job and be sent to prison, he should also have a chance to vote, said Oliver York, 15, a sophomore at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco.

‘Really Important’

“I would vote as soon as possible,” York said. “This is going to be really important for what I would like out of my education, and it’s going to be really important in bringing the current issues in the city to teens.”

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the national voting age to 18 from 21.

That hasn’t helped curb the decline in turnout among young voters. In 1972, 52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the presidential election, which declined to 41 percent in 2012, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a research group on political engagement of young people at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

Lower Rates

Voters who are between 18 and 24 years of age have consistently voted at lower rates than all other age groups in every presidential election since 1964, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau analysis of young-adult voting in presidential elections.

“Overall, America’s youngest voters have moved towards less engagement over time,” the report said.

Turnout tends to plummet in non-presidential years. In San Francisco, about 29 percent of registered voters turned out in the November 2013 and June 2014 elections, according to city Department of Elections data.

People aged 16 and 17 are a small group who aren’t going to vote at high rates and aren’t going to be influential enough to sway election results, said Corey Cook, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

“To me, this is far less about who benefits politically” than getting young people into the habit of voting, Cook said.

In Takoma Park, Maryland, of the 1,196 residents who voted in November 2013, 59 were 16- and 17-year-olds, said City Council member Kate Stewart.

Eligible Teens

In a special election last April when Stewart was elected, 14 newly eligible teens voted in her race out of 665, she said. Green Card holders who aren’t citizens are also allowed to vote in the city’s elections.

“We need to move toward increasing opportunities for people to participate in our communities and voting is one of those ways,” Stewart said.

The Hyattsville City Council agreed to lower the town’s voting age starting in the May 5 election for mayor and council.

“My 16-year-old daughter will be eligible to vote possibly for her father -- or someone else,” Mayor Marc Tartaro said.

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