For Rachel Owens, the events of the past month have amplified the message that she and dozens of her peers have been preaching for the past year: Young people should have a greater voice in local government.
Owens, who will be a senior at Palo Alto High School this fall, is president of Vote16 Palo Alto, a group that is championing a proposal to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. In recent weeks, she was part of a crowd of speakers who have urged the City Council to place a measure on the November ballot that would allow voters to weigh in.
Proponents of the change argue that lowering the voting age would improve voter turnout, strengthen democracy and improve civic engagement. It would also allow youth to weigh in on issues that greatly impact them, including climate change, bike route improvements and police reform. They reject the notion that 16- and 17-year-olds are not mature enough to vote and point to a 2011 study by David Hart and Robert Atkins, professors at Rutgers University at Camden, that found that on "measures of civic knowledge, political skills and political efficacy, and tolerance, the 16-year-olds, on average, are obtaining scores similar to those of adults." Others pointed to studies showing that voting turnout is higher for young people who are still living at home, which is true for most 16-year-olds but less so for those who are 18.
Antonia Mou, who also will be a Paly senior this fall, said lowering the voting age to 16 will make students more engaged in the American Government and Civics class that they take during their sophomore year.
"This will also help to dispel concerns that 16- and 17-year-olds are not informed enough about certain issues to have a vote," Mou told the council on June 22.
Palo Alto isn't the only city where youth are leading the charge to lower the voting age. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place on its November ballot a measure that would lower the voting age to 16. Proponents also point to Berkeley, where students are allowed to vote in school board elections thanks to a 2016 measure that was approved by 70% of voters.
In Palo Alto, however, the group's bid to give youth more representation ran into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle last week: an exhausted City Council ready for its summer break. Despite pleas from dozens of speakers in a series of meetings, the council declined to consider the proposed ballot measure on June 23, its final meeting before its summer vacation. The council also rejected the group's plea that it hold a special meeting in July, before its next scheduled meeting on Aug. 3.
"It is the duty of the City Council to provide constituents with the opportunity to decide for themselves, whether or not they believe the voting age should be lowered to 16," Owens told the council on June 23.
Councilman Greg Tanaka proposed at the June 22 meeting that the council schedule a full discussion of the upcoming election and, specifically, the Vote16 Palo Alto initiative. He also said at the end of the June 23 meeting that he hopes the council can "sneak in Vote16, somehow," before August. He did not receive any support from his colleagues about considering the Vote16 proposal. When Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she planned to reach out to the group, Mayor Adrian Fine immediately shut down the discussion, saying the item is not on the council's agenda.
Theoretically, the city can direct staff on Aug. 3 to craft a resolution and then approve it at a special meeting before the Aug. 7 deadline for submitting measures. But given the time it takes to prepare a resolution and perform all the necessary analysis and legal review, this course of action is highly unlikely.
The council's decision not to move ahead creates a setback for a movement that began last summer and that has attracted support from hundreds of students and from various former civic and education leaders, including Terry Godfrey and Dana Tom, past presidents of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education and member of the Vote16 Palo Alto advisory committee. Owens said the group had initially planned to place the issue on the ballot by collecting signatures, though that effort was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders that prohibited large gatherings. The group did not want to place anyone's health in danger, she said.
Given the pandemic, Vote16 Palo Alto members decided that the best way to get the issue to the voters was through the City Council. Godfrey was among the speakers who urged the council to place the item on the ballot.
"Building lifelong voters is a goal for all of us and this is the time to strike, while the iron is hot," Godfrey told the council on June 23.
Any proposal to lower the voting age would undoubtedly encounter opposition. San Francisco's initial bid to lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections fell short in 2016, with only 48% of the voters supporting it. While no one spoke out against the Vote16 Palo Alto at recent meetings, the effort encountered some pushback last year, with one school board member saying she was concerned about students feeling pressured by teachers to vote for a particular candidate or policy.
There are also questions about the actual implementation, given that 16- and 17-year-old voters would need special ballots. While the council hasn't taken any positions on the issue, its failure to entertain a discussion suggests a lack of enthusiasm by elected leaders for pursuing the effort this year.
The group is hoping to change that. Miranda Li, founder of Vote16 Palo Alto, said members thought it would be particularly suitable to bring the item to the voters this fall, given the increase in youth engagement, as evidenced by recent demonstrations.
"There are a lot of really important issues that the City Council has to decide on regarding police reform, and we actually think that's what makes the vote particularly relevant during this election," Li, who graduated from Paly this year, told this news organization. "We've seen youths turn up in the thousands for police reform and organizing programs on their own."
While the council's inaction leaves the movement on uncertain footing this year, group members plan to keep the effort going. They are now putting together a survey to gauge the broader community's support for lowering the voting age. They are also reaching out to local legislators to work on a state bill that would make it easier for cities and school districts to lower the voting age to 16, said Mou, vice president of Vote16 Palo Alto. She noted that in most cases, school boards don't have the option of lowering the voting age because they are entities of the state.
"We want to give more agency to local governments and school boards to allow them to lower the voting age to 16 but not require them to do so," Mou said.