In Newark, 16-Year-Olds ‘With Skin in the Game’ Are Set to Get the Vote

The City Council in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, is expected on Wednesday to grant residents as young as 16 the right to vote in school board elections, beginning in April.

If implemented, the measure would make Newark the largest community in the United States to expand voting rights to younger residents since 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 nationwide.

“This would far and away be the most consequential effort to lower the voting age to 16 in the country,” said Andrew Wilkes, chief policy officer at Generation Citizen, a national nonprofit group focused on encouraging young people to participate in democracy.

There have been some successful efforts to allow younger teenagers to vote in smaller communities in Maryland, California and Vermont over the past decade.

In 2013, Takoma Park, Md., a 17,000-person suburb of Washington, became the nation’s first city to let 16-year-olds vote in local elections. Last year, Brattleboro, Vt., lowered its voting age to 16. And in California, residents of Berkeley and Oakland approved referendums in 2016 and 2020 giving 16-year-olds the right to cast ballots for school board, but the change has never been implemented.

Several smaller communities across the country have lowered the voting age in recent years. Here, a 9-year-old boy in Hyattsville, Md., makes the case for letting 16-year-olds vote in local elections.Credit…Jabin Botsford/The New York Times

The initiative in Newark, a city 10 miles west of Manhattan where nearly 90 percent of residents are Black or Latino, is considered a major leap in a nationwide campaign to reinvigorate civics education, encourage greater participation in the democratic process and boost lagging voter turnout.

Last year, only 3.1 percent of Newark’s 195,000 registered voters cast ballots for the nonpartisan election for the city’s nine-member school board. Each of the three winners won with fewer than 3,500 votes.

Roughly 7,000 16- and 17-year-olds in Newark are likely to be newly eligible to vote in April’s school board race, according to census data, representing a voting bloc large enough to easily sway elections.

“They will actually have to listen to us,” said Nathaniel Esubonteng, a 16-year-old junior at Science Park High School, one of Newark’s top-performing schools.

The presidents of the City Council and the school board have endorsed the lowered voting age, and final approval is expected at a City Council meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s a training ground and opportunity to prepare young folks to actually engage in larger elections,” said Newark’s mayor, Ras J. Baraka, a former high school principal.

Newark holds a unique place in history. It was decimated in 1967 by racial unrest that resulted in 26 deaths, left entire blocks in charred ruin and accelerated a decades-long exodus from the city by middle-class white residents.

Over the past decade, the city has reduced violent crime and rebounded economically as it leveraged its proximity to New York City to lure businesses and well-heeled residents in search of cheaper rents.

Still, fewer than 24 percent of the city’s 300,000 residents now own their own homes, and one in four residents lives in poverty. The city’s public school system was long deemed to be failing, resulting in a state takeover that began in 1995 and did not end until 2020.

Ryan Haygood, a civil rights lawyer who lives in Newark and runs the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, characterized the effort to give younger teens the right to vote as a racial justice effort.

“We’re not waiting for democracy to trickle down from Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Haygood said.

His organization, one of the main groups that have pushed for lowering Newark’s voting age, has gotten requests from other large New Jersey cities — including Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City and Trenton — for guidance on how to win support for a 16-year-old vote, he said. And on Tuesday, Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, also offered key backing in his State of the State address for a proposal to not only permit — but require — the state’s more than 500 communities to allow 16-year-olds to vote in school board races.

In his State of the State address this week, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey urged lawmakers to lower the voting age for school board races statewide.Credit…Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

If adopted, it would be the first statewide effort of its kind.

State Republican leaders panned the effort as nothing more than a cynical effort to pad the Democratic advantage in New Jersey. Democrats in New Jersey already outnumber registered Republicans by 955,000 voters.

“Give me a break,” said Senator Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican who represents Jersey Shore communities.

“They’re not ready to make these decisions,” he said of most 16- and 17-year-olds. “They’re not taxpayers.”

Representative Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, has introduced legislation in Washington to lower the voting age for all elections nationwide to 16, a proposal that has yet to gain widespread public support. A 2019 poll by Hill-HarrisX found that 75 percent of people surveyed opposed allowing 17-year-olds to vote; 84 percent opposed allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

Research has shown that the earlier people begin to vote regularly, the likelier it is to become a lifelong habit. More than a dozen states, including New Jersey, allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 before the general election.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, efforts to amend the Constitution to lower the voting age to 18 began at the state level — with New Jersey leading the way. The movement was fueled by the argument that Americans who were old enough to be drafted and fight in wars should also be permitted to vote.

David DuPell, 76, took a year off school from Rider University in Lawrence Township, N.J., as he and Stuart Z. Goldstein and another student leader, Ken Norbe, helped run a campaign that in 1969 resulted in approval by New Jersey’s Republican-led Legislature of a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18. Voters in New Jersey, however, rejected the amendment, and the energy shifted to Washington and the fight for the 26th Amendment.

If implemented, Newark would become the largest community in the country to lower the voting age to 16 for school board elections.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mr. DuPell, who now lives in California, said he supported the effort to lower the voting age in New Jersey.

“Kids are being shot at at school,” he said in an interview. “Books are being banned. These are issues that affect them.”

Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs, chief executive of the National School Boards Association, said she and her organization strongly supported expanding youth voices in educational decision-making.

But she said it was equally important to educate younger voters on the voting process to ensure that adults who may be eager to co-opt a new bloc of voters do not use the newly enfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds to “push their own agenda.”

“It’s not enough to say we have 16- and 17-year-olds voting,” agreed Paula L. White, the director of JerseyCAN, a New Jersey group that advocates for improved public schools and includes many leaders from the charter school community. Roughly one-third of students in Newark attend public charter schools.

“Democracy is predicated on an educated populace,” said Ms. White, who founded a charter school in Newark and was the “chief turnaround officer” at the New Jersey Department of Education during the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican now running for president.

“This should also be driving civic education.”

Breanna Campbell, 16, is among a group of students who have helped push the Newark City Council to embrace the lowered voting age. When she talks about issues important to her, she mentions adding International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes, enhancing extracurricular options and curbing gun violence near schools.

Mussab Ali, a former school board president in Jersey City, N.J., and a 2023 graduate of Harvard Law School, was recently named Generation Citizen’s first director of Vote 16 USA, a nationwide effort to expand voting rights to younger teenagers.

Mr. Ali, 26, said he believed Newark was “at the tip of change” nationwide.

“It’s about empowering young people,” he said, “who really have skin in the game.”

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