When I turn 18 next year, one of the first things I will do is to register to vote. To me, voting shows that a person belongs to a society. It symbolizes maturity and gives the voter a voice among millions. I have a year before I will have that voice, but what if I could vote right now? The idea of voting as a 16 or 17-year-old never crossed my mind until I heard about a group of New York City teens fighting for the right to vote in city elections. When I found out that some of these teenagers were gathering at City Hall to draw attention to their cause, I decided to see what they were all about.
On the steps of City Hall, I met the passionate group of teen members of Future Voters of America. The teens at the rally told me that since they live in a country that prides itself on being democratic, they should be able to participate in that democracy. They felt their needs and ideas were being overlooked by the city.
But they are not being overlooked by City Councilmember Gale Brewer, who has re-introduced legislation to allow 16 and 17-year olds to vote in local elections. New York City would be the first city in the United States to bestow this right, though a similar effort is underway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and 16-year-olds already have the right to vote in local elections in nations as different as Israel, Germany and Brazil. In Iran, kids as young as 15 are reportedly allowed to participate in elections.
“A 13-year-old can be tried as an adult. A 16-year-old can drive and have a job,” Brewer said. “Teens need to have a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives.”
The legislation is now in committee and if the City Council passes it and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signs it into law, Brewer estimates that as many as 200,000 16- and 17-year-olds would have the right to vote in city elections.
Brewer stood by her teen supporters at the recent rally at City Hall to draw attention to teen voting rights. And in a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Brewer argued that the legislation would encourage more teens to get involved in local issues. “Their voices would be heard on key issues such as education, housing, community development and environmental concerns,” she wrote. “If given a chance to vote, the youth could increase their interest in civic life and continue voting in future years. It is often argued that many 18 to 20 year olds do not vote because they have not been exposed to involvement in political participation. This bill would address this issue.”
Students at the rally such as Eidia Monei from La Guardia High School and Aneeba Rehman from Hunter College agreed, arguing they are mature and knowledgeable enough to cast a ballot on issues such as public housing and the environment.
City Councilmember James Oddo of Staten Island is one of those opposed to the legislation. "We applaud the young activists who have such a strong interest in government, and we wish more of their classmates felt as strongly as they do," wrote Christopher DeSicco, spokeman for Oddo's office. "However, they appear to be the exception and not the rule, and we believe extending the franchise to teenagers under the age of 18 is simply bad public policy. The election of municipal officers is serious business and the city’s elected officials must approve a budget that now exceeds $50 billion annually. The choices made will affect the city for years. We cannot leave such important decisions to kids who are still in high school and who may not yet even have a basic understanding of basic American government.”
I myself am not sure that teens would take advantage of their voting rights. Of course, many adults don’t either. The teens who would be mostly likely to vote if the voting age is lowered do have strong opinions and ideas about public policies. And, say the advocates of a lower voting age, teens would bring a fresh new perspective to politics, their energy and spirit reminding adults of the excitement they once felt when they saw a world before them ready to be changed.
Desiree Bailey is a junior at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens, and a writer for the teen-written magazine New Youth Connections, published by Youth Communication. Â