Meet The LAUSD Teen Fighting To Lower The Voting Age To 16 In School Board Elections

Mónica García (left), president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, shakes hands with Tyler Okeke, the LAUSD board's non-voting student representative. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

UPDATED, Apr. 24 — High school senior Tyler Okeke understands adult responsibilities — he views them from a front-row seat as the student representative on the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

Okeke's classmates understand them too. At the ages of 16 and 17, Okeke says his fellow high school students are not only driving and working. Some are paying taxes, caring for siblings or helping their families make ends meet by working breadwinning jobs.

One of Okeke's peers will often work late shifts at McDonald's, "then go to a college class, then come home, and then come [to high school] the next day smelling like French fries, making sure he has enough to provide for his family and his college education."

Okeke argues if high schoolers can handle these responsibilities, it's only right to give them another: voting.

LAUSD TO VOTE ON PROPOSAL

Okeke drafted a school board resolution directing L.A. Unified School District officials to study whether it's possible to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in LAUSD board elections. Board members approved Okeke's resolution Tuesday.

Ironically, Okeke couldn't formally vote on his own proposal — he only casts advisory votes — but board members Mónica García and Kelly Gonez signed as co-sponsors.

"We've already been contributing. I think it's time to move it up to a civic level."

The resolution calls for Superintendent Austin Beutner and his staff to study the "feasibility" of placing a measure on the 2020 ballot to allow "persons 16 years of age or older" to vote in LAUSD elections, and report back with their findings by June 18.

"Students have a lot to bring to the table," said Okeke, who attends Harbor Prep Teacher Academy in Wilmington. "We've already been contributing. I think it's time to move it up to a civic level."

STUDENTS' VOICES

Okeke drafted the resolution because he felt the ongoing battle between two huge forces in LAUSD politics — charter school advocates and teachers unions — has drowned out students' voices.

He felt January's teachers strike was a prime example of how some students' needs took a back seat to district politics. On the fourth day of the walkout, Okeke released a statement calling for "concessions on both sides."

"I did picket with teachers," Okeke said, "but there were still students who came to school. They said, 'I don't have Wi-Fi at home, that's why I need to be here' ... There are a lot of people who need support in their schools."

The remark provoked backlash from commenters on Facebook and Twitter. "It's just part of being in public service," Okeke said, but he still felt the response highlighted a disconnect between LAUSD's students and the district's powers-that-be.

'IT'S A VERY SLIPPERY SLOPE'

LAUSD wouldn't be the first district to lower its voting age. In Nov. 2016, voters in Berkeley approved a ballot measure allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Berkeley Unified School District elections. BUSD is hoping to implement the change in 2020.

That same year, across the bay in San Francisco, Measure F would have given 16- and 17-year-olds a vote in all local elections — but voters rejected the ballot measure.

Some opponents worry lowering the voting age would undermine legal arguments against charging minors as adults in criminal court.

"It's a very slippery slope when we make the argument that if one can vote, one should be able to stand trial," said Malia Cohen. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Cohen was one of two members of the city's Board of Supervisors to vote against placing Measure F on the ballot.

Proponents of a lower voting age don't see much of a connection with the criminal justice issue.

"I think that's apples and oranges," said Luis Sánchez, executive director of Power California, an organization that pushes to increase youth voter registration and lower the voting age.

But Jack Pitney, the Roy Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, guesses that these criminal justice arguments were probably persuasive in the Measure F debate.

(Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

'START WITH A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE'

Public opinion surveys show today's teens lean even more to the left than their slightly-older Millennial peers.

But Pitney says that may not have helped Measure F in deep-blue San Francisco. Liberals may have felt "they don't need the extra help" from younger, even-more-liberal voters to pad their margins.

Pitney opposes lowering the voting age. He feels too many 16- and 17-year-olds haven't grappled with many adult responsibilities, like property ownership or health insurance. Beyond that, he says the government has a legitimate interest in deciding who's prepared to cast an informed vote.

"I think you have to pick an arbitrary line," Pitney said, "and 18 makes sense."

But Sánchez — whose organization helped Okeke build support for his LAUSD voting age resolution — said there's evidence that suggests allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote is more likely to turn them lifelong habitual voters.

"If you really want to build a civic engagement culture in this state that ensures young people become a regular voting base ... you have to start at a place where they're a much more captive audience," Sanchez said.

UPDATES:

Apr. 24, 11:20 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect the LAUSD board's passage of the resolution.

This article was originally published on Apr. 22 at 1:30 p.m.