Where progressive measures failed statewide, they prevailed in San Francisco. City voters approved nearly every local measure by wide margins including those to fund public schools and Caltrain and allow non-citizens to serve on commissions, among others.
There was just one exception: a measure that would have granted 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections.
Proposition G, which would have made San Francisco the first major American city to enact youth suffrage, narrowly failed by about 1 percent this November, despite a recent boom in youth activism. A similar measure failed in 2016.
Youth who worked on the campaign are, at once, shocked, disappointed, unsurprised, and resolved to try again.
“Honestly, it’s just kind of frustrating for me,” said 15-year-old Adrianna Zhang, who represents District 7 on the Youth Commission. “Youth have a stake in our government, but our voices are not being heard or listened to. Really, it’s just strengthening democracy and ensuring we have voters who will vote for years to come.”
Proposition 18, a statewide measure to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if eligible for the following general election, also failed with about 45 percent of the vote. This makes even less sense to Zhang than voters rejecting Prop. G, as it would have only allowed a roughly six-month difference in the voting age.
Arianna Nassiri, another Youth Commissioner who worked on the campaign, said this time around, they focused more on the fact that youth are often taxpayers, and are just as impacted by policy decisions, particularly those made about school.
Proponents also thought that global attention on youth activism since 2016 would make a dent. Young people were emphatically praised for organizing around gun violence, climate change, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter.
“There’s this hypocrisy between saluting the work of young government activists and young political activists but then not deeming that work legitimate enough for the right to vote,” Nassiri said. “It’s quite confusing.”
The measure had broad support from members of the Board of Supervisors and Board of Education, and groups like Coleman Advocates. But the COVID pandemic really hampered the campaign’s ability to reach out and convince voters, Zhang and Nassiri said.
Young people are well aware of why adults may be reluctant to grant them the right to vote, given concerns about maturity and political disengagement among youth. The San Francisco Chronicle argued in its “no” endorsement that it doesn’t make sense to allow teens to vote when they can’t sign contracts, but also noted that they would only be able to vote on city issues.
Youth organizers countered that 16-year-olds tend to have roughly the same level of civic education as 21-year-olds. They also demonstrate “cold cognition,” a decision-making process, like adults.
“I know dozens of currently eligible voters who would lose their right to vote because they’re socially immature” if maturity was a requirement, Nassiri said.
Countries like Argentina, Scotland, and Cuba allow 16-year-olds to vote in all elections, while cities like Berkeley and Tacoma Park, Md. allow them to vote in local elections. A surge in youth voting nationwide, but particularly in battleground states among youth of color, may have helped President-elect Joe Biden win the Electoral College.
Deeper civics education was supposed to follow Prop. G’s passage. But the campaign alone, at a time when many were increasingly active in political campaigns, got youth thinking about how they would vote and excited about the possibility.
“I can’t wrap my head around it,” said 16-year-old Joanna Lam, a Sunrise Movement activist who volunteered for Jackie Fielder’s state senate campaign. “It would have established the voting habit really early. A lot of them, frankly, have ideas about policies [and are] informed already.”
Though Prop. G failed, it did show sentiments have shifted ever so slightly. Measure F, the 2016 attempt, failed with nearly 48 percent of the vote.
That tells youth vote proponents that it’s a matter of time and further education, which would probably be made easier without the obstacle of a pandemic, before more voters are on board. Nassiri anticipated Prop. G might fail and said that plans are already forming for another shot in the next election.
“It’s quite interesting, actually, to think about why our human nature is to exclude people from the electorate rather than include people,” Nassiri said. “You know how many go-arounds there were to allow women to vote in America? As long as we’re still going in the right direction, we’ll eventually cross that threshold.”