Op-ed: Give youth a voice in school board elections

"Instill the value of civic responsibility in a new generation."

Originally published in Bay to Bay News on April 23, 2023.

We are fortunate to live in a free society, where the government is elected democratically. However, “freedom is not free,” as they say. If we value living in a free society, we need to do the hard work of socializing young people to be responsible, civic-minded members of our communities, and that includes instilling in them the habit of voting.

That is why I am excited to see a new bill (HB 96) introduced into the Delaware House that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections – not including referendums on school taxes. In other words, this bill would allow young people to help choose the adults who will make decisions about education. This would be a great way to introduce young people to the practice of voting.

Hardly a radical move, this bill simply builds on currently existing Delaware law. The First State already allows 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, if they will turn 18 by the date of the general election, as do many other states. And Delaware already allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote prior to becoming eligible to vote, as do almost half of all states. Allowing young people to vote in school board elections is a logical next step.

Socializing students into the habit of voting at an early age will help instill the value of civic responsibility in a new generation of Delaware voters. Beginning this process at age 16 rather than 18 has many advantages. Lowering the voting age would mean that first-time voting could be a teachable moment done with the support of teachers and parents. Beyond that, studies show that 16-year-olds are no less capable of making electoral judgments than 18-year-olds. 

The sixteenth year is generally far less tumultuous than the eighteenth, when young people are focused on major life changes like beginning college or joining the workforce. Permitting 16-year-olds to vote would support habit formation among young people who are strongly connected to their local community, before they move out of their parents’ home and likely begin a decade-long period of geographic mobility that contributes significantly to low voter participation among young adults. 

Society already recognizes the sixteenth year as a point of maturity. That is why at that age, young people can start working without a permit and obtain a driver’s license. Working 16- and 17-year-olds pay taxes on their earnings. And if a 16-year-old commits a crime in Delaware, they can be tried as an adult. They are also old enough to petition the Court for emancipation.

The Delaware Constitution does not prohibit the General Assembly from lowering the voting age for school board elections. Our state, like every state, must comply with the U.S. Constitution, which states, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” In other words, while no state may prohibit those who are 18 or older from voting, the Constitution does not preclude allowing people younger than 18 to vote. And while some state constitutions include language that says people must be 18 to vote, the Delaware Constitution does not.

Six jurisdictions in the United States have already lowered the voting age to 16 for some or all elections, with no discernible negative consequences. Berkeley and Oakland, California have lowered the voting age for their school board elections, which is what HB 96 is proposing for Delaware. In neighboring Maryland, Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Oakland, Riverdale, and Takoma Park have all lowered the voting age for local elections. 

Lowering the voting age has increased voter turnout. For example, in a 2013 Takoma Park city election, 44% of the newly enfranchised and registered young voters turned out, compared to an overall 11% turnout rate. Similarly, in a 2014 election, about half of the newly-registered 16- and 17-year-olds voted, compared to the 10% turnout rate of other voters. With only 42% of Delawareans voting in the 2022 election, we could benefit from greater levels of participation.

As the Executive Director of Common Cause Delaware, I advocate for a strong democracy that includes all voices. Introducing 16- and 17-year-olds into the electorate in a thoughtful way will help create a democracy that represents the diversity of the United States. We need to find bold ways to continue to increase participation in democracy through voting. Lowering the voting age is one way to do this. That is why I applaud Rep. Eric Morrison and Sen. Sarah McBride for introducing HB 96, and I hope to see the Governor’s signature on the bill later this year.