Ada Meighan-Thiel, a 17-year-old high school student from Culver City High School, enacted an age-old teenage ritual as she stood on Marcelo Chamecki’s porch the week before Election Day. She was there to try to convince an adult to take her and her young friends seriously.
Her arguments were well-rehearsed on that sunny afternoon as she laid out the virtues of Measure VY, a ballot initiative that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal and school board elections in her hometown of Westside.
The local measure is presented to voters in Tuesday’s election. If passed, it would make Culver City one of the few communities in America to allow people as young as 16 to vote. No other municipality in the country has the question on its ballot this year.
“The VY measure would raise the local voting age here in Culver City to 16,” Meighan-Thiel said, a clipboard of informational flyers in hand. “By really involving people in democracy from an early age, a value of participation will be instilled in them, so that in the future they will be much more habitual and well-informed voters.”
Clutching a cup of coffee in the wooden door of her home on a shady street, UCLA science professor Chamecki listened to Meighan-Thiel’s speech, nodding as she explained why she should be trusted to vote. He asked about how the proposal would be implemented.
Outside some homes that Meighan-Thiel solicited, there were literal signs of the uphill battle ahead of the movement’s supporters, often referred to as Vote 16: construction signs pleading for the defeat of the measure. Some seemed to conjure up the lyrics of Pink Floyd, the classic rock band from when many high school grandparents were young and probably also thought adults didn’t understand: “NO on VY ‘Vote 16’ Leave the les children alone!”
Chamecki seemed at least open to youthful ground.
“I haven’t even decided everything yet, so it’s very helpful,” he told the teenager. “I’m a little aware of the situation, but it’s good to have more information.”
The scarcity of municipalities that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote underscores how contested the issue is.
Supporters of the movement say that at 16, young people are mature enough to have a say in decisions that affect them. And because they can get jobs and pay taxes, they should be able to vote, they add.
Opponents fear that 16-year-olds are too young to fully understand political issues and are too easily influenced to make reasoned electoral choices.
Conservatives and even some centrist Democrats also worry that allowing traditionally left-leaning young people to vote will disproportionately help progressive politicians and causes.
Years before high school activists tried to make Vote 16 a reality in Culver City, several cities in Maryland began pushing for change. Six locations in that state allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in certain elections.
The first of these, Takoma Park, approved the measure nearly a decade ago. Takoma Park, like all municipalities in Maryland that have approved the practice, is not far from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park, where much of the research and early advocacy on the issue originated.
In 2020, 49.2% of San Franciscans voted for a similar ballot measure, narrowly missing out on lowering the voting age for municipal elections in a city of more than 800,000 people. In 2016, Berkeley became the first municipality in California to approve such a measure for school board elections, followed by neighboring Alameda County, Oakland, four years later. But the county has yet to implement the measure, which has no mechanism to force its rollout, so 16- and 17-year-olds in both towns are still unable to vote.
No such measures have been approved in the United States beyond Alameda County and Maryland.
In Congress, Rep. Grace Meng (DN.Y.) has repeatedly introduced legislation to amend the Constitution to make 16 the national minimum voting age. There hasn’t been enough support on Capitol Hill for the proposal, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented around the world, as countries like Argentina, Austria and Malta allow citizens to vote at age 16.
Like many of her peers, Melisa Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Fremont High School in Oakland and a Vote 16 advocate, argues that it’s vital that today’s teens have a voice in the political process. According to her, young people like her must clean up the mess left behind by older generations, including climate change and gun violence.
“It’s my problem, it’s my life that I live and that I should be responsible for instead of letting adults make all the decisions,” Rodriguez said. “So pushing this is really empowering for me and my community. To be able to do that, it just says a lot of good things about us and our future and future generations.
Teens in cities and towns from the Bay Area to Oregon to Colorado are exploring ways to make it possible for 16 and 17 year olds to vote.
In Culver City, a number of politicians spoke out against the VY measure. That charge is led by Steven Gourley, a retired lawyer who served as mayor, alderman and school board chairman in the town of about 40,000 people.
“Virtually everyone I’ve approached doesn’t know it’s on the ballot. When I tell them what it is, they say, ‘Sixteen, are they crazy?’ he said in a recent phone interview. “I talk to people who have had teenagers and I talk to teachers who taught in high school, and they say these people are too young to vote.”
He filed official forms with the city outlining his opposition. Earlier this year, he set up a website to voice his concerns about the proposal and list 18 local leaders — including two other former Culver City mayors — who he says agree with him.
Gourley, a longtime Democrat, echoed a concern shared by some of his former colleagues that the push to lower the voting age in Culver City is a ploy by “so-called progressives” to try to establish long-term control over local politics. .
“They are trying to expand the electorate so they can be re-elected,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city’s current, younger and more left-leaning mayor, Daniel Lee, said he was a “passionate supporter” of Vote 16.
“Studies show that the sooner someone really starts participating in the voting process, the more likely it is to be a long-standing thing,” he said.
Generation Citizen, a national, nonpartisan civic education organization that helped launch the nationwide Vote 16 campaign, has supported ballot initiatives to expand voting to 16 and 17-year-olds in communities in several states.
The New York-based group provides advice to young activists and their adult advisors, helps navigate complex bureaucratic processes, and amplifies efforts to spread the word on the issue. This year, all eyes are on the Golden State.
“California is poised to be a ground swell and a laboratory for informed Democratic representation, and I think that’s what Culver City is on the ballot Tuesday,” said policy director Andrew Wilkes. and advocacy from Generation Citizen. He noted that in Culver City, the organization provided technology assistance, communications support and campaign strategy advice.
“It’s pretty remarkable that during a pandemic you had people there who didn’t let go,” Wilkes added.
For many young Vote 16 advocates, this is a galvanizing question that has brought them closer to the political process than they ever imagined they would be while still in high school. For the first time, they see a way to have a voice in their community before becoming adults. Its most ardent young proponents cite research that has found that 16-year-olds have adult-level cognitive abilities.
As he prepared to canvass a neighborhood on Wednesday, Miles Griffin, a 17-year-old senior at Culver City High, described the right to vote in existential terms.
“I think voting and having a voice in general is kind of the problem to end all the problems. Because if you can’t vote, if you don’t have a voice, you can’t make a difference,” Griffin said. “If politics affects people, then they should have a say in that politics.”
Los Angeles Times