NEWARK – What’s this silliness about 16-year-olds voting?
Many don’t even know “who the city council is,” let alone the mayor.
That’s what city resident Denise Cole told the council as it met Wednesday afternoon.
Cole was not alone in her cynicism about a plan to lower the voting age for casting ballots in city school board races from 18 to 16.
But she was in the minority.
After a 90 minute or so hearing, the nine-member council unanimously approved an ordinance lowering the age to 16 for voting in board of education races. It remains at 18 for all other elections.
Backers of the change were anything but shy in proclaiming its importance.
“You are doing something historic,” said Henal Patel, of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Patel and others said that when voting rights are under attack throughout the land, the city of Newark is going in the opposite direction.
Former Mayor Kenneth Gibson’s quote more than 50 years ago – “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first,” – was referenced more than once.
Supporters also said that young people have a history of political activism.
After all, didn’t they march for civil rights in the 1960’s and, of late, are they not demonstrating in support of gun laws and against police brutality?
That spirit deserves to be rewarded with the right to vote, they said.
Council Member C. Lawrence Crump said he thinks the youth of today are much more equipped to decide issues and to vote than he was when he was a teenager.
From a more practical point of view, everyone knows that school board elections attract very few voters. In short, turnout is lousy.
So, expanding the voter base to those with a direct interest in how schools are run is bound to increase participation. That is the hope at least.
Opponents, however, said many young people simply do not have the maturity to vote. And that could lead to a less than desired result.
“This is about manipulating the vote,” one resident said.
By that, she meant that the political machine that controls so many cities will use its considerable influence to ensure that newly-franchised teens vote the “right way.”
Another resident said, this is a win for the machine, or as she put it, “Baraka, Murphy and Booker.” For those needing a scorecard, that’s the mayor, the governor and the U.S. senator from Newark,
Gov. Phil Murphy, in fact, favorably mentioned the city’s plans in his State of the State address Tuesday, adding that he would like to see it expanded statewide.
As for the politics, the council said the critics were way off base.
LaMonica McIver, the council president, said this has nothing to do with helping the mayor or the council. It is designed simply to give students more of a say in how their schools are run.
Fair point, but how about the assertion that many young people are ignorant about current affairs?
Larry Hamm, a well-known political activist and U.S. Senate candidate, applauded the move, but said it should be accompanied by state mandates to compel the teaching of civics statewide.
Some countered that giving 16 and 17-year-olds some voting rights will get them more interested in civic life. Perhaps? But there are no guarantees.
Council Member Anibal Ramos Jr. had this on his mind as well. He said he feared that turnout would actually decrease if the pool is expanded and nobody votes. He said it’s up to the school board and the council to “engage” young people and get them interested in electoral politics.
Council Member Carlos Gonzalez brought up the “slippery slope” argument.
He wondered if the advocates who pushed for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote will next seek to lower the age even further, like to 14.
Still, he voted “yes.”