Let teenagers vote in local elections? Some say the benefits are great

When you break it down, each member of the nine people Knox County School Board represents approximately 6,500 students in K-12 schools in the district.

But only about 7 out of 100 students can vote for these representatives.

This gives the Knox County student body far less voting power than adults. Although they can advocate for themselves, they can’t vote if they don’t like the way their representative is handling their education.

Some communities have tried to change this balance. There is a movement to lower the voting age to 16 in local elections and, yes, it is legal.

“They still feel so left out. And maybe that’s by design,” Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, told Knox News. He is part of a group that campaigns for better voter turnout for teenagers.

Alyssa Ross, 17, helps register voters at the Halls High School polling station on May 3.

Oakland, Calif., is the largest city to allow young voters to vote in school board elections, and this November will be its first try.

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Maryland is a national hotspot for getting teens to vote, and data from its elections is promising, said Alberto Medina, communications manager for Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Learning and Learning. civic engagement.

In Takoma Park, Maryland, 16- and 17-year-olds outnumbered adults in the first election in which they could vote.

Forty-two percent of registered 16- and 17-year-olds voted in local elections that year, which was much higher than the rate among registered adult voters at 10.2%.

Even a small expansion in the electorate can have a big impact locally. There are five school board races in the Knox County election cycle this year.

The District 1 Democratic primary was decided by a margin of 161 votes, according to Knox County Election Commission records. The District 9 Republican primary was decided by 700 votes.

Raymond Jin, a senior at Farragut High School, is the student representative on the Knox County School Board, who can speak on issues but cannot vote like full members. He supports the idea of ​​lowering the voting age in local elections, saying it would encourage candidates to give more weight to student concerns.

“Even if it’s not a very large chunk that becomes a voting population, those representatives might want to at least engage to get their votes,” Jin said.

If candidates show up more to students because they can vote, students will in turn be better informed, Jin said.

“Because they can actually vote, they will engage more,” he said.

Criticisms of lowering the voting age

Critics say teenagers don’t have enough political knowledge to make informed decisions. But this argument flies in the face of one of the central tenets of democracy – voting is a right guaranteed to everyone, regardless of experience, intelligence or merit.

“For good reason, we don’t really pay attention to voters’ political knowledge. This is not how we decide if someone should have access to emancipation,” Medina said.

Studies show that younger voters have the same level of political knowledge as slightly older people, Medina said.

“The idea that a 16-year-old is much more politically ignorant, to use that phrase, than an 18-year-old doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny,” Medina said.

Most Americans cannot pass a basic civics exam, so holding students higher than adults is also hypocritical, advocates say.

Others worry about the maturity of young voters.

“We certainly can’t say that here in Tennessee, where we just passed the bill allowing an 18-year-old to be able to carry a gun,” Dixie said.

Matthew Maroney poses for a portrait at the State Capitol in Nashville, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Maroney worked with lawmakers to help craft the key policy points behind the Tennessee Student Voter Act.  Maroney is a student at Hume Fogg University High School.

Choosing who to vote for is a slow decision that takes time and is based on accumulated information, a kind of decision teenagers are already making. These are rushed, emotional decisions made in the heat of the moment that teenagers are not as skilled at as adults.

“It’s not the parts of the brain that have to do with the kinds of thinking and decision-making that go into voting or making a political decision,” Medina said of brain development.

16-year-olds can drive, work, pay taxes, be tried and convicted as adults and, in some states, marry with parental consent.

So the debate is complicated: “Either you decide what young people can or cannot do at all levels, or you just sort of pick and choose,” Medina said.

The advantages of voting at 16

Lowering the voting age can create a better image of democracy by instilling values ​​from the start.

“Voting is customary, and it’s something academics have known for some time,” Medina said. “People who continue to have higher turnout start voting at a young age.”

People are more likely to be regular voters if their parents take them to the polls as children, if they vote for the first time while living with their parents, and if they are in school when they become eligible to vote.

Misty Brown votes with her sons Rory and Jasper, both 9, at the Richard Yoakley School polling station in 2021.

“If you allow 16 year olds to vote and they choose not to vote at 16, you at least involve them so that at 18, 20, 22 or whatever they are more likely to vote because ‘they know what’s going on,’ Jin said.

Local elections are the perfect place to develop this two-way street. Not only are school boards relevant to high school students, but they are also publicly accessible, making them an ideal place for hands-on civics education.

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In addition, the school board has authority over course offerings. A civics or social studies teacher may be the person who invests a student.

“Schools have a huge role to play…because they are one of the few institutions that reach all or most young people,” Medina said. “It’s important for equity because privileged young people may have other kinds of avenues or opportunities to participate, but for some, school is really where they can get a lot of knowledge.

Other movements aim to increase participation

The education of eligible students is also an important element. Students say they learn how government works at a high level, but miss out on practical information like how to register and vote when they turn 18.

“The laws we put in place really have a greater impact on young people than on our elders in life. So why wouldn’t they want to have a say in what happens to them? said Dixie.

He sponsored the Tennessee Student Voter Act, which would require high schools to tell eligible students how to vote.

Even though his bill failed, he stressed the need for greater civic education in Tennessee, including education about the power of local governing bodies.

Raymond Jin, student representative at the Knox County School Board, addresses the room.

“Children know that the school board decides when they will have a snow day or not. But I don’t think they know how much he decides school policy,” said Matthew Maroney, a high school student from Nashville.

Maroney spearheaded the Student Voter Act. As a senior at Hume-Fogg High School, he says his classmates don’t see how the government is connected to their world.

Maroney said more humanities classes are needed to teach why civic engagement is important. This implies more long-term voters.

“If there was a high sense of civic participation among young students in particular, you might see interest in local politics and elections grow rapidly,” Maroney said. “And you could see the kids really getting involved in the local school board elections.”

Even if they do not have the same right to speak as voters, students can still defend themselves and participate in elections.

Talk to friends and family who can vote and help them come up with a plan to do so, Medina suggested. Campaign for the candidates you prefer. Volunteer at the polls. Reach out to your school board member and tell them what matters to you, she suggested.

“Ultimately, (the school board) serves the students, and the opinions of the students matter, in a variety of situations,” Jin said. “And so they can’t just ignore them.”


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