Local Voting Age
Youth Voting in Local Elections
Authorizes 16- and 17-year-old citizens to vote in local elections.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition F would amend the San Francisco City Charter to grant 16- and 17-year-olds who are U.S. citizens and residents of San Francisco the right to vote in municipal and school board elections.
This measure would only apply to youth who are U.S. citizens — estimated to be between 6,000 and 15,000 people in San Francisco.1 If every eligible 16- and 17-year-old registered to vote, this group would amount to approximately 3 percent of registered voters.
If San Francisco voters approve the amendment, the city controller expects that the Department of Elections would not incur major costs, as the programs and practices necessary to register 16- and 17-year-olds and keep separate voter rolls (for groups permitted to vote on one part of a ballot but not another) already exist.2
Typically, the voting age in the United States is 18 for local, state and federal elections, though 21 states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 by the day of the general election. The U.S. Constitution does not prevent states from establishing a lower voting age. Currently, Takoma Park and Hyattsville (both in Maryland) are the only U.S. cities with a minimum voting age of 16. Several countries, including Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Scotland, allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
Voter engagement has remained chronically low in the United States. The problem is particularly acute among young voters. Only 19.9 percent of Americans ages 18–29 voted in 2014 (compared with 36 percent participation overall by eligible voters), and only 46.7 percent in this age group are registered to vote.3Several barriers to participation particularly impact young voters. At age 18 (when voting rights currently kick in for most of the country), many young people are facing transitions — many are moving out of their homes and sometimes away from their home cities, starting a career or college. Only a quarter of 18-year-olds register to vote, and most people don’t start voting until their late 20s.4
Early initiatives to extend the vote to youth have shown promise. In many of the jurisdictions that have legalized 16- and 17-year-old voting, the voting rate among teens has been higher than for other age brackets or for traditional first-time voters (18- to 21-year-olds).5 And activating the teenage vote may spur broader gains in voter participation. In the short term, 16- and 17-year-old voters influence the voter turnout of older family and community members.6 Research shows that the earlier people start voting, the more likely it is that voting will become a long-term habit.7
Past and current city attorneys have issued varying opinions about the legality of a measure lowering the local voting age. Article 2, Section 2 of the California Constitution states that “a United States citizen 18 years of age and resident in this State may vote.” However, Articles 9 and 11 of the California Constitution permit charter cities, such as San Francisco, to pass laws in areas of local concern (such as school board elections) that do not mirror state law. It is the opinion of the current San Francisco city attorney that this measure is legally defensible.
This measure was placed on the ballot by a vote of the Board of Supervisors. Because it is an amendment to the City Charter, it must be on the ballot. The measure requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
By extending the right to vote to more residents, Proposition F could help San Francisco government become more representative and better serve its citizens.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds work, pay taxes and can be viewed as adults in court and legal proceedings; they should also be allowed to vote. Research has shown that 16- and 17-year-olds are sufficiently developed in their analytical, independent and empathetic cognitive abilities to make thoughtful voting decisions.8
Under this measure, 16- and 17-year-olds would stand to gain two years of experience voting on municipal races, which could prompt them to become more engaged with and educated about local issues.
Legalizing voting at a younger age could improve turnout for younger voters and their families. Voting earlier in life has been shown to lead to stronger voting engagement throughout a person’s lifetime.
It is possible that Proposition F could be interpreted as a violation of the state constitution.
Parents of minors living at home may wield undue influence over their children’s votes.
SPUR has worked for decades to increase participation in the civic decisionmaking process. We believe responsive, effective government requires a high level of involvement by the city’s residents. This measure would open participation in public decisions to between 6,000 and 15,000 more citizens who, we believe, could make conscientious voting decisions. Additionally, engaging youth in municipal elections could improve the health of our democracy overall by heightening interest in local civic issues and contributing to better youth turnout and lifetime voter engagement.
2 Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are already permitted to pre-register to vote with the state registrar in California. And the practice of distributing different portions of ballots to different subsets of voters is already commonplace in primary elections, where Democrat, Republican and independent or non-affiliated voters receive different portions of the overall ballot. The methodology could simply be extended to separating out the local portions of ballots.
5 See note 3.
7 Eric Plutzer, “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth,” American Political Science Review 96/1 (March 2002): 41–56.
8 Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins, “American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 63 (January 2011): 201–221.