By Jacqueline Ornelas
As we face a pandemic, the legacy of structural racism, and the most important elections of our lifetimes, young people are fighting for our lives, our families, and our collective future. We have demonstrated strong leadership on some of the biggest issues facing us today, from climate change to immigration to racial justice.
This past summer in San Francisco, some of the largest Black Lives Matter protests were led by young people, including one in the Mission District and one that took over the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re taking that same energy to the polls this November by voting for the issues that matter most to us.
One of the most important issues to me on the ballot in San Francisco is Proposition G, which, if passed, will expand voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds in local elections. Young people are powerful leaders who have much more wisdom and maturity today given all of the challenges and threats this year. We must expand the youth vote because we deserve a say in our future.
COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on young people. Many of us are essential workers or have lost jobs, our education has been interrupted, and now we face an uncertain future in the midst of a health and economic crisis. 16 and 17 year olds deserve a say in the decisions about our recovery. That’s why I believe we should all support Prop G and make San Francisco the first major city in the U.S. to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds.
Last week, my younger sister celebrated her 18th birthday, and one way we celebrated was filling out our ballots together. From a young age, our mother instilled in us progressive values. My sister is so smart and could easily have been voting in local elections two years ago. We are two of approximately 500,000 youth in California who pre-registered to vote before turning 18. In San Francisco alone, about 2,000 16 and 17 year olds have pre-registered, which demonstrates the eagerness with which young people are ready to engage in our democracy.
Expanding voting rights is critical to long-term civic engagement and will strengthen our democracy. Research shows that the earlier one casts their first vote, the more likely they are to keep voting. Unfortunately, 18 is not the most ideal age to pick up a lifelong habit. Facing many life transitions, many 18 year olds do not begin voting until they are in their late 20s. At 16, young people are better positioned to form the habit of voting supported by peers, parents and teachers, while still immersed in the city they call home.
In San Francisco, local voter turnout is higher than many other cities. However, voter turnout is lowest among the youngest eligible voters, ages 18-29. We need to ensure young people build the habit of voting as early as possible, and voting at 16 is one solution to do that.
If we want to increase turnout of young voters, we must pass Prop G now and make our voting systems and civics education more accessible and relevant. Students learn best when the material presented is relevant to their lives, and civics classes fall short when they teach young people how government works without any ability to actually participate in it. 16 and 17 year olds deserve the opportunity to put these lessons into practice, integrating actual voting responsibility into the learning process.
The San Francisco Board of Education unanimously endorsed Prop G. Last week, following public comment from several 16 and 17 year olds, the Board passed a resolution committing to educating students to be ready to vote, including the pre-registration process.
A recent survey of 3,654 SF high school students showed that 74% would “absolutely” or “most likely” register and vote in a local election at the age of 16. This percentage includes 75% of Black and 77% of Latinx students, groups that are underrepresented at the polls.
Many 16 and 17 year olds in San Francisco are also living in households where non-citizen or undocumented parents cannot vote. 1 in 3 SFUSD students has an immigrant parent. As young voters, we can also help encourage our families to vote or vote to represent them. Prop G would help ensure these families have a voice in our democracy on the local level.
In our rapidly changing city, this moment demands we reimagine who gets to vote and empower young people to shape policy.
Young people are ready to vote. Let’s pass Prop G so they can.
Jacqueline Ornelas is a third-year student at the University of San Francisco, studying sociology, and a youth leader with San Francisco Rising.