It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was tagging along with my parents as they went to cast their ballots at our local elementary school gym. At that time, elections didn’t mean much more than a trip back to school after dinner; it was only in my early teenage years that I gradually realized not only the significance of voting, but its impact and influence on our everyday lives.
Even though we’re seeing young people be more vocal and visible on the national stage than ever before, most people under the age of 18 still don’t have access to the most common route our democracy provides to speak up: voting. But now, that’s starting to change.
Back in 2015, the Greenbelt Youth Advisory Committee, a committee that works with the City Council to address issues youth face in Greenbelt, proposed to lower the municipal voting age. That same year in a referendum, only around 23% of the voters were in support for 16- and 17-year old’s voting in the city elections. But after almost two years of campaigning, advocating, and attending public meetings put on by the Greenbelt Youth Advisory Committee, around 54% of voters supported the change. In 2018, the City Council officially passed the referendum lowering the municipal voting from 18 years to 16 years, making Greenbelt the largest city (in population) that has lowered its voting age and the only city where a majority of the electorate voted in favor of that change.
This November will mark the very first time 16- and 17-year olds in Greenbelt will head to the polls to vote for their city council, and in preparation for this momentous occasion, we, the Youth Advisory Committee, are working hard to ensure that all 16- and 17-year olds in our city are registered by the October 7th deadline and are ready for the November 5th election. We have partnered with Vote16 USA and the League of Women Voters to help register young students at our local school and help raise awareness about the fact that sixteen-year-old students can start voting. We are firm believers in the fact that our democracy is strongest when as many people as possible participate in the civic process.
That belief is what encouraged me to join the Greenbelt Youth Advisory Committee and later, become its chair. I felt that, now more than ever, it was critical to elevate the voices and concerns of young people—and time for those young people to have a seat and voice at the table, particularly because so many of the issues that are being discussed impact us every day. For that reason, our committee has worked to shed light on many issues that impact our generations, from human trafficking to crime prevention to civic engagement.
Although 16- and 17-year-olds can only vote in a few select cities currently, I am very hopeful that the success of Greenbelt and other cities like us will inspire other cities, and maybe one day, the country, to adopt this policy. I believe that giving younger people the chance to vote will result in a generation with far stronger voting habits and also a much more diverse electorate. I also think that all cities, and even states or nations, would benefit from the perspectives of young people and their input on issues that affect them.
As the head of the Youth Advisory Committee, I know that having young people engaged in the government is essential to having an engaged city. When young people have the power to speak up about the issues that matter to them, they feel more responsible to engage with and improve their city and communities.
If you live in Greenbelt, I highly encourage all 16- and 17-year olds to register to vote by the Greenbelt Municipal Election deadline, Monday October 7th, 2019, and then get out there and VOTE!