Palo Alto students organize local Vote16 chapter to lower voting age

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS COURTESY VOTE16 PALO ALTO

When the school board approved a reopening plan after both of Palo Alto High School’s student representatives voted ‘nay,’ a group of Palo Alto teens realized that students don’t have a voice in local politics unless they can vote. 

“It seemed like [student] demands sort of went unheard and we wanted students to have a voting power in our local government, because that’s really what pushes these elected officials to make change,” Paly senior and Vote16 Vice President Anotnia Mou said. 

Vote16 Palo Alto, a chapter of the national Vote16 USA organization, is working to get 16-year-olds the right to vote in Palo Alto City Council elections and to encourage civic education in schools. 

WHAT THEY DO

Vote16 PA is currently focusing their efforts on granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in city council elections. 

“[Students] are just as affected by the decisions that city council makes on transportation, affordable housing, safety policies and climate change … than the other public,” Paly senior and Vote16 PA President Rachel Owens said. 

According to the Vote16 website, to lower the voting age, the organization can either pursue a citizen’s initiative petition, which entails getting 6% of Palo Alto voters to sign, or the city council must vote to place this initiative on the ballot.

The group is pushing for a citizen’s initiative petition for the November 2022 elections that they will release in the summer. 

Initially, Vote16 aimed to win 16-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections, but the red tape and legalities associated with the state’s jurisdiction has made it much more complicated, so the team is focusing on city council elections. 

“So, if we’re talking beyond local, [lowering school board voting age] is kind of our next thing that we are focused on,” Paly senior and Vote16 PA Secretary Jonothan Sneh said. 

WHY THEY DO IT 

Founded by several passionate Paly and Gunn students, the group recognizes that the only way for youth to have their voices heard in local politics is through enfranchisement. 

“We wanted students to have a voting power in our local government because that’s really what pushes these elected officials to make change,” Mou said. 

“There is this voice from students, but it’s just not being heard,” Sneh said. “We have different opinions, different needs, and we’re also important members of the community.”

The Vote16 website outlines three arguments for why Palo Alto ought to lower the voting age: improving democracy and voting habits, improving civic education and engagement, and representation for youth in politics. 

According to Mou, evidence shows that when students start voting younger, they are more likely to continue voting as adults. 

“If people start voting at 16, they’re able to do so in that stable environment with their parents in their community,” Mou said. “That makes it much more likely that they’ll become adjusted to voting and once they leave their home … they’ll likely continue voting.”

OTHER WORK

In addition to working to lower the voting age, the group has also held events to encourage civic engagement among students and teenagers. 

Owens, Mou and Sneh said the event they are proudest of is a city council candidate forum that they arranged with various other political student groups. The panel allowed students to ask their potential representatives questions about policies that might pertain to them. 

“I think that that was something that was sort of unprecedented for city council elections and we got the opportunity to watch city council members try and appeal to youth in the community,” Owens said. “I think that that’s an important next step toward allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.”

Vote16 also works as student liaisons for the League of Women Voters to hold informational sessions to register 18-year-olds to vote in elections and to educate them on local policies.

“These events really teach people the logistical and practical aspects of voting compared to their civics and U.S history classes which are much more conceptual,” Mou said. 

Jean Lythcott, co-director of voter services at the League of Women Voters Palo Alto spoke to members of Vote16 in 2019 as a part of the organization’s effort to increase civic engagement. (courtesy Vote16 Palo Alto)

Owens echoed this idea, saying civic education is vital to having an informed group of young voters. 

“There’s so much going on all the time and I think it’s quite easy to become desensitized to it,” Owens said. “I also think that the media tends to be pretty polarized, so sometimes it’s difficult to get an idea of what the facts are with regards to local issues.” 

The group has spoken to several history teachers in their district in hopes of implementing more education on local issues and voting into civic curriculums, according to Mou, but is postponing more official talks about their implementation plan for when teachers get settled in with distance learning or when schools go back in person. 

“What teachers bring into their classroom is pretty flexible, so it’s really up to the individual teachers,” Mou said. “We’re hoping to have that conversation with teachers this semester or next.”

Sneh said that Vote16 is dedicated to ensuring that, if the bill were to pass and 16-year-olds could vote, they are educated about what they are voting on. 

“It makes you way more engaged in civics in general and having that in the classroom as an introduction pushes people to get more involved,” Sneh said. “This is knowledge that’s easy to access.”

“Our hope is that lowering the voting age and civics education can kind of go hand in hand,” Owens said. “If during that civics education they have the opportunity to learn about local issues and local elections, then they can be more informed when they’re making those voting decisions.”

Aside from working with other Vote16 chapters in the Bay Area, the group has formed bonds with various community leaders that they call their “Community Coalition” — a group of school board members, PTSA presidents and other community members who advise the team members of Vote16. 

“We have no experience with ballots and stuff like that, so they may advise us in that capacity on how to write resolution with official language and that kind of thing,” Sneh said. 

“Talking to them about Vote16 and also about other issues has been really empowering and really inspiring,” Owens said. “I really want to extend that opportunity to any student who’s interested and give them the opportunity to talk directly to their representatives.”

In the near future, Vote16 plans to use these connections to organize a monthly Q&A with city council members and youth. 

“You may have this really intricate and seemingly amazing plan in your head about how things are going to proceed and it will never go that way,” Owens said. “But if you’re able to be flexible and to keep figuring out how to move the campaign forward, you will find success.”

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