Berkeley High sophomore Rio Bauce, 15, has assigned himself a daunting task: winning the right for 17-year-olds in the city to vote in school board elections.
On Tuesday, Bauce and four fellow Berkeley members of the National Youth Rights Association announced they were starting a ballot drive to lower the voting age for school board.
“Seventeen-year-olds know the schools as well as anyone and they have the biggest stake in them,” Bauce said. Currently students elect a non-voting representative to the board.
The NYRA is hoping to convince five city councilmembers to place the issue on the ballot in November 2006. If the council declines, the students could still take their initiative to the voters by collecting approximately 3,000 signatures from registered voters. Signature gatherers must be registered voters, and thus over 18, meaning that the students proposing the initiative couldn’t collect signatures.
Laura Menard, the parent of a high school sophomore, said she didn’t want her son voting as a 17-year-old.
“High school is still primarily a popularity contest,” she said. “I don’t think high school students have any idea of what goes into a proper education and how to administer it.”
The school board is divided on the issue. Bauce said the two most left-leaning members, John Selawsky and Terry Doran, have come out in support of the ballot measure, while Shirley Issel is opposed.
School Board Director Joaquin Rivera didn’t take a stand on the initiative, but expressed some doubts.
“It might sound really nice,” he said, “but there are a lot of implications that need to be looked at like the legality and cost issues.”
State law defines an eligible voter as a U.S. citizen age 18 or older. Andrew Lachman, a Los Angeles-based attorney specializing in youth voting issues, predicted that if voters approved the initiative the issue would quickly end up in court.
“Either the city would enforce the will of the voters and an opponent would sue, or the city would declare it illegal under state law and a supporter would sue,” he said.
It would be up to the court to rule whether a Berkeley school board election was considered a state election, subject to state laws, or a municipal election, he said.
While the cost of allowing 17-year-olds to vote in school board races is unknown, earlier this year the city projected that giving 16-year-olds the vote for all city elections would cost around $38,000 for extra ballots, new voting rolls and more poll workers.
For students, the drive to lower the voting age to 17 for school board is just a baby step.
“Our goal is still for 16-year-olds to be able to vote in every election,” said Berkeley High junior Zach Hobesh. “But there is no way we are going to get that unless we start with a smaller victory.”
Last month the group suffered a stinging defeat, when the City Council voted 5-4 against asking the state to let cities lower the voting age to 16.
“After that we decided to be a little be more practical,” said Robert Reynolds, an 18-year-old Berkeley High graduate who last year founded the local NYRA chapter.
Reynolds said the current board largely ignored student concerns, especially about class sizes in the high school. “I’ve had to sit on the floor in government class because there were not enough desks.”
Private school students would also be given the vote under the initiative.
Bauce contended that 17 is an appropriate age to get students in the habit of voting since they are still in high school and their lives are reasonably stable.
“At 18 a lot of students are leaving town,” he said.
One downside to the ballot initiative the students acknowledged is that since school board elections are held in even years, not every seventeen-year-old will get a chance to vote. Those who turn 17 before Election Day in odd years when there are no school board elections would not be eligible to vote.
Although NYRA could only muster five students for Tuesday’s announcement, Berkeley High junior Chris Howell insisted that if given the vote students would pack polling stations.
“They would feel so empowered, of course they would vote,” he said.
Although young voters are still the least likely to cast a ballot, the percentage of 18-24-year-olds voting jumped from 36 to 47 percent in 2004, according to a report from the University of Maryland’s Center For Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement.
Berkeley students are hardly alone in lobbying for suffrage. On Tuesday the City Council voted to support a bill in the state legislature making California the 14th state to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the time of the general election. Last year, a bill in the state legislature giving 14- and 15-year-olds one-quarter of a full vote and 16 and 17 year olds one-half of a full vote died in committee.
In 2002, Cambridge, Mass., city leaders voted to lower the local voting age to 17. But the state legislature, which has the final say, has not approved the change.
While minors have failed to win the right to vote, a few cities, including Chicago and Takoma Park, Md., have enfranchised non-citizen parents for school board elections. San Francisco voters narrowly defeated a similar measure last year.›