SF seeks to become first major city to lower voting age to 16

San Francisco is poised to become the first major U.S. city to consider a policy that would reduce the voting age to 16.

Today, Supervisor John Avalos is expected to introduce a charter amendment that would change The City’s definition of voter to someone who is at least 16 years old. This would apply only to municipal elections and not state or federal elections.

The proposal would allow “any person who is at least 16 years old, meets all the qualifications for voter registration in accordance with state law other than those provisions that address age, and is registered to vote with the Department of Elections” to vote on city ballot measures and candidates.

However, voting for San Francisco Unified School District commissioners and City College of San Francisco trustees is excluded from the proposal because they are quasi state bodies.

Avalos said his proposal follows a resolution authored by San Francisco teenager Joshua Cardenas and passed by the Youth Commission in January urging Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors to explore lowering the voting age.

If approved by at least six supervisors, the charter amendment could then go before voters as early as Nov. 3. It would require simple majority approval to pass.

“Young people are engaged in change efforts and community development efforts…all over San Francisco,” Avalos said. “This is one other way they can be involved.”

Avalos noted that distributing voter information to 16- and 17-year-olds, as opposed to the 18-to-24-year-old age group, would be much easier because high school students typically tend to have lived in the same community for years. Young adults, on the other hand, are often starting new lives in unfamiliar places.

“If they’re voting earlier, [they] stay involved in voting during critical years when they’re more transient,” said Avalos, citing two separate studies that show voting frequency can depend on when someone casts their first ballot.

The quest to lower voting ages, while not new, has only recently become a reality in the U.S. Takoma Park, Md., was the country’s first city to reduce its voting age to 16 when it did so in May 2013, followed by Hyattsville, Md., this past January.

Harper Matsuyama, 16, was among those who pushed the effort in Hyattsville. Some residents who contested lowering the voting age said teenagers can be immature, which Harper dismissed as a generalization.

“The decisions are impacting everyone, including us, so it’s only fair that we get to say something,” she said. “I know a lot of mature [teenagers] that would make some great decisions.”

Proponents said lowering San Francisco’s voting age could set a precedent for other large cities.

“It would be huge,” said Keith Mandell, a director of the National Youth Rights Association. “It would show people this is not just a small…type of thing.”

Avalos has consulted with the City Attorney’s Office and maintains that the voting age for local elections falls within San Francisco’s jurisdiction.

“We believe there are strong arguments to make to defend it were its validity challenged,” said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office.

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