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D.C. Teenagers Advocate for Voting Rights

Elders who oppose teen electoral participation often argue against the youth’s lack of maturity and knowledge of political systems.

Such characterizations have perturbed young people on the front lines of burgeoning movements around safety, homelessness, education and other issues.

Dozens of those youth leaders recently pushed back against critics with statistics and stories of their teen experience during a D.C. Council hearing, where they and their adult advocates attempted to make the case for lowering the city’s voting age to 16.

“We know what’s going on in the schools and how the problems can be fixed, especially education and classroom instruction,” Monae Scott, 17, a Ward 7 resident and peer educator at the Young Women’s Project in Northwest, said during the June 27 D.C. Council hearing, in her support of legislation that would change voting laws.

“It’s imperative that schools involve young people in how the curriculum is set up,” Monae, a senior at SEED Public Charter in Southeast, told the council members. “There should be more curricula for 11th- and 12th-graders that push[es] them toward career choices. This is especially true for schools in Wards 7 and 8.”

If passed, signed into law, and approved by Congress, the Youth Vote Amendment Act of 2018 would lower the District’s voting age to 16, granting 11,000 adolescents access to the ballot box. Like their adult counterparts, 16- and 17-year-old D.C. residents will be able to choose candidates for local and federal offices.

Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, have already passed similar laws, though their 16- and 17-year-olds can only vote in municipal elections.

On June 27, more than 70 people, most of whom were younger than 18, testified before five of 13 D.C. Council members during a six-hour hearing that attracted dozens of students and adult advocates.

In the early rounds of testimony, onlookers filled the D.C. Council chamber to capacity, at one point forcing latecomers to wait outside for minutes.

Councilman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) called the hearing to order shortly after 2 p.m. In his opening remarks, he addressed concerns that young people don’t have the life experience necessary to vote alongside adults.

“In the District, 16-year-olds don’t have the privilege of being treated like children. Many frankly shoulder adult burdens,” Allen, sponsor of the Youth Vote Amendment Act and chair of the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety, said at the start of the June 27 hearing.

D.C. Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), and Robert White (D-At Large), four of the bill’s seven co-sponsors, joined their colleague at points throughout that afternoon and evening.

“[Young people] serve as caregivers, sometimes for their own children,” Allen said, reading from a prepared statement. “They experience trauma, victimization, and violence in and out of school. They’re forced to make many adult decisions at a young age. Yet, they have no control over who represents them in government or how they hold them accountable.”

In April, Allen introduced, for the second time in three years, the Youth Vote Amendment Act amid a groundswell of adolescent civic engagement and activism locally and nationally. Weeks before, D.C. students joined young people from across the country in the March for Our Lives, a youth-led mass rally on the National Mall for gun reform. Some of those who attended the historic gathering served leadership roles within VOTE16DC, a coalition of local youth championing voting rights and their adult advocates.

VOTE16DC, formed by national nonprofit General Citizen and the Young Women’s Project in Northwest, has organized around this cause since last fall. Feelings of disenfranchisement, shown in the low voter turnout in the D.C. Democratic primary weeks ago, had long engulfed many Washingtonians long before the group’s inception.

For the past seven months, VOTE16DC’s youngest affiliates channeled their frustrations during hours of peer education, social media blitzes, and community organizing. As they represented their partner organizations Wednesday, teen leaders argued that without voting rights, they have no voice in discussions about matters affecting them.

“We want voting rights to address issues in our community like gentrification, transportation, and even school policies,” said David Adams, a student at McKinley Technology High School and fellow participant in the Northeast-based Life Pieces to Masterpieces program. “It’s not true that we’re not mature. The turnout of the March for Our Lives was huge. Even the turnout at the hearing on Wednesday was incredible. We all want this right and we take this matter seriously.”

Problems affecting young people in the D.C. public and charter schools piqued IDEA Public Charter School student Ceon Dubose’s interest. During her testimony Wednesday to the D.C. Council about challenges affecting city students, she drove home the point that she and other youth need more tools to shape their relationship with the public education system.

“[Adults] need to hear the youth so they know what’s going on,” Ceon, 16, a Black Swan Academy youth leader, told The Informer afterward. “We have issues around the school-to-prison pipeline where kids get pushed out of school. That can lead to them having other bad experiences. As youth, you want to see more of our peers in school not getting pushed into the system.”

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