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Teen Activist Pushes To Lower Voting Age To 16

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tyler Okeke joined LA's school board before he could even vote. He was 17 when he served as student representative for the Los Angeles Unified School District during the 2018 school year. That's when he saw a disconnect between what his peers wanted and what the board was doing. And so he wondered, why shouldn't he be able to vote for the people directly shaping his life?

Okeke became an advocate for lowering the voting age to 16 not just for school board elections but for all elections. He's a member of the most diverse generation in American history, Generation Z. Many will be voting for the first time in November, but many will stay home. And that's where I started with Tyler Okeke when I spoke with him earlier. Why lower the voting age to 16 when many young people who are already old enough to vote don't?

TYLER OKEKE: If this was not work that I was doing, like, for years, I probably wouldn't know the process of getting an absentee ballot to vote in the California election while I go to college in Chicago. And this is some of the most transitionary times of young people's lives, when they're getting new jobs. They're going to new schools. They're going to new states, new cities, new countries. And then folks finally settle down and pick up voting again. And what we've found is that if we introduce voting at 16 when folks are in high school and they're learning U.S. history, that pairing voting and civic education in high school has incredible effects in just making sure that young people are voting in their first two consecutive elections, which research shows creates lifelong habitual voters.

CHANG: OK. You think lowering the voting age to 16 would create a greater number of habitual voters, which is good in general for a democracy.

OKEKE: Yes.

CHANG: What other justifications do you have for empowering 16-year-olds, teenagers, to vote?

OKEKE: Young people in our generation have been extremely involved in politics informally in the form of movements, in the form of organizing protests. Namely, we've been the lifeblood and at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, of the #MeToo movement, of the movement for immigrant justice and environmental justice. And these are all spaces where we have a long history of showing up and showing out and showing that we care. And I think pairing both our civic and outdoor advocacy and grassroots advocacy with the ballot is important to making sure that our action is coordinated in - and on all fronts.

CHANG: Why 16? I'm just curious. Like, some people think that 18 is an arbitrary cutoff, but I guess the same could be said of 16. I mean, in general, if you're talking about engaged young people, when people start caring about causes, why not 15? Why not 14? Why 16 to you?

OKEKE: So 16 for a few reasons. No. 1 - across the country, young people take U.S. history at the age of 16, during their junior years in high school. And that is where we actually get a rooted and deep understanding of our democracy and the origins of our country. And also, it makes sense that we apply voting at that same time so that it's not only theory, but it's also practice and democracy and democratic engagement. And I'll also refer to research that said that - that does make a distinction between 15 and 16 when it comes to civic knowledge and also maturity to vote.

CHANG: There is a proposition on the California ballot this November. If it passes, it would allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the time of the next general election to vote in primary elections and special elections. Let me ask you, why do you think the teenage vote is especially important?

OKEKE: We grow up at a time where no other generation has had so much access to information outside of a book like this, right? We have Twitter. We have Facebook. We're digitally connected to the world. This has allowed us to understand issues and understand conflicts that impact us in so many different ways.

And I'll also say that a lot of the issues that are currently being debated in city halls, county supervisor boards, on school boards and at the legislature directly impact the quality of life that we will inherit from the generation before us - right? - things like climate change where governments broadly are dragging their feet, issues like making sure that we actually bridge the equity gap in our schools where politicians and leaders are dragging their feet on those issues. Those are issues that we're fired up about and that we're passionate about because when we look down the road, we don't see a hopeful future. We don't see a future where we'll have access to clean water and clean air and equitable schools. And that's something that we're getting frustrated about and are looking and exhausting all of our tools and opportunities to say something and do something about it. And voting is just the logical next step in making sure that a generation that is so passionate about change and so deeply affected by the decisions that are being made now, that we are inserted into policymaking and have a say in our democracy.

CHANG: Tyler Okeke, Vote at 16 advocate and youth organizer at Power California, thank you so much for joining us today.

OKEKE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.