JERSEY CITY, N.J. (PIX11) — Because school board decisions directly affect students, a growing movement among high schoolers in New Jersey’s second largest city is calling for the voting age in school board elections to be lowered to 16.
An organization called Vote@16 is making a push to get legislation passed that would allow Jersey City to join a handful of other municipalities in the country that allow voting for under-18 residents.
Doing so, said Marie Hong, a 16-year-old member of Vote@16, would “have [students] directly involved in the political process.”
Hong is a rising senior at McNair High School in Jersey City. She and another rising senior, Zachary Yabut, a County Prep High School student, are helping to organize a rally at City Hall in Jersey City on Friday evening calling for voting rights to be expanded to include 16- and 17-year-olds.
“They’re the people who are seeing the effects of the decisions of the school board, the people who are making the decisions in their education,” Yabut said.
The main organizer of the Vote@16 movement is an adult, who has experience with election politics and young people.
“I got elected at 20,” said Mussab Ali, a former member of the Jersey City School Board, “and became school board president at 23.”
“Young people are really, really interested in their schools, and having a say,” Ali continued.
“In Takoma Park, Maryland, when they did this, young people voted at double the rate of the average turnout in school board elections,” Ali said.
He was referring to one of the few other places in the U.S. where people under 18 can vote for school board. In an even smaller group of municipalities, people under 18 can vote in other local races, as well.
All of the places that allow some under-18 voting are either in California — Berkeley and Oakland; or in Maryland — Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, and Takoma Park.
The activists in Vote@16 said that they’re optimistic that Jersey City can be added to that list. They said that they’ve gotten support from their member of Congress, Rob Menendez; their state senator, Brian Stack; their state assemblymember, Raj Mukherji, and the county executive, Thomas DeGise.
Still, for the measure to actually become policy, it has a long road ahead of it, according to Dan Cassino, professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“First, you have to pass this through the state assembly,” he said in an interview. “After that, then municipalities that want to allow young people to vote in these elections would actually have to pass, and have a vote, within their city, to change the rules.”
If the proposal were to become law, Prof. Cassino said, the process could take at least two years — which would be after the point at which the current teen activists would become voting-age adults.
That’s no matter, they said. The effort has to start somewhere, they told PIX11 News.
“By giving teenagers the right to vote at 16,” said Hong, the 16-year-old advocate for the voting age change, “it would make them more inclined to find out more about the political scene.”
“Voting at a younger age,” she continued, “would promote, I guess, lifelong civic engagement.”
The rally in support of the voting age change is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18, at City Hall in Jersey City.