(Published in The Marin Independent Journal)
Fairfax this week cracked opened the door to expanding the voting age to all residents age 16 and older on municipal ballot measures.
The Town Council on Wednesday voted unanimously to establish a subcommittee headed by council members David Weinsoff and Renee Goddard to coordinate community discussion about the idea.
Weinsoff said he drafted the proposal because the council has long heard community support for more ways to involve Fairfax youth to a greater degree in local issues.
“Kids have often come to council and voiced their opinions on the matters before the town,” Weinsoff said after the meeting. “I think all politicians keep an eye out about what the public clearly has an interest in seeing and what the community is focusing on.
“Fairfax always seems to be on the cutting edge of social issues, and this one falls within the history of Fairfax politics and how we like to govern ourselves.”
Two Washington D.C. suburbs are the only U.S. municipalities that have lowered the voting age to 16, according to a recent report in the New York Times. Takoma Park, Maryland, reduced its legal voting age in May 2013, and Hyattsville, Maryland, voted to change its charter last month.
However, California seems ready to try to bring more members into the elite club.
Two San Francisco supervisors voiced support for a resolution drafted by the San Francisco Youth Commission in January that seeks to lower the voting age in the city to 16 for municipal and school district elections.
Both Fairfax and San Francisco will have to work with their respective city attorneys to understand the authority each municipality has to set its own voting age, a process Weinsoff is set to take on for Fairfax.
“I believe that California law is always flexible when it comes to providing greater rights to the people of our state,” he said.
But Lynda Roberts, Marin County registrar of voters, said she would have to investigate the matter.
“I’m not sure under the law how (lowering the voting age) fits,” she said Friday. “There’s election code and the state constitution that talks about the voting age, so at this point I would just need some more information to see if (Fairfax) can proceed.
“At this point there are more unanswered questions than answers.” State elections officials could not be reached for comment.
There are 5,132 registered voters in Fairfax; local officials did not have an estimate of how many additional voters could be added to the rolls by lowering the voting age to 16.
A group of parents and students turned out at Wednesday’s meeting to support Weinsoff’s recommendation, which was amended to suggest that research into the topic would be conducted only after discussion with the town staff to visit the pros and cons of expanding the voting age.
In his remarks, Weinsoff highlighted a recent University of California at Davis study that found there was only 8 percent electoral participation in California among voters ages 18 to 24 from November’s midterm elections.
“There were major issues on that ballot — dealing with drought, state finance — significant issues that affect us all,” he said. “I don’t think the participation really could have been worse.”
Weinsoff compared the hypothetical process of expanding the voting age in Fairfax to the success of the standard recycling program in local schools.
“It’s beyond second nature at this point for kids to recycle,” Weinsoff said. “Let’s do it for voting. Start them early — make them feel empowered that their voices do count.”
Several students and teachers lined up to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting.
“I actually just turned 18 last Wednesday, so this doesn’t exactly apply to me,” Jack Parnell-Wolf, a senior at Sir Francis Drake High School, noted before launching into an impassioned speech about the importance of political engagement among youth in Fairfax.
Parnell-Wolf lamented that while his friends mapped out buying a lottery ticket or a pack of cigarettes when they turned 18, “I was disappointed that registering to vote wasn’t even in the top five milestones when you turned 18.”
It “gets under my skin,” he said, when he hears that his peers and students younger than himself don’t bother with politics. Getting kids involved with politics, he said, is as easy as handing them the vote on issues that regularly consume their community.
“If you give kids the tools to participate in this environment, kids will come out. They’ll drop that phrase that they don’t want anything to do with politics.”
“I think they’re ready for it,” Weinsoff concluded, regarding Fairfax youth who are just shy of age 18. “The time has come to start a conversation.”