In November of 2016, Berkeley took a major step forward in building a future in which youth could be active participants in their democracy. An overwhelming 70 percent of Berkeley voters elected to pass Measure Y1, which would give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board elections. At the time of the decision, Berkeley became one of the few cities in the entire country that had passed such legislation. However, due to logistical obstacles on the part of local governments, Measure Y1 has still not been implemented in the four years since it was approved. Though many had been optimistic that 2020 would finally be the first election to see the measure come into effect, the voting rights of 16-year-olds have yet again been pushed back — this time due to pandemic related delays.
Though bureaucracy is a slow moving process, Y1 still remains as important as ever. 16-year-olds are already granted many civic responsibilities, such as obtaining a driver’s license, donating blood, working, and paying taxes.
“If we already have all these responsibilities, voting should be another one,” says Sylvie Love, a Berkeley High School (BHS) senior and leader of Berkeley Vote16, an organization responsible for not only helping to pass Y1 in 2016, but also working to lower the voting age to 16 in local and state elections. “We are definitely old enough to feel the effects of legislation, especially from the School Board, because that directly affects high schoolers,” added Love.
Currently, the BUSD School Board has only one form of representation for the student body — which is not enough for students who want to be more politically active. “I think [Measure Y1] is a really good stepping point to show that teenagers can have the initiative to be invested politically,” said Miles Miller, the BHS Student Director on the BUSD School Board. Through organized walkouts and protests, BHS students have proven time and time again that they are more than ready to be civically engaged. “[Students] should have more power besides just one position on the board to decide what their education will look like,” commented Miller.
Initially, 2018 was intended to be the first year that Measure Y1 would be implemented, but logistical complications with ballots and voting machines forced it to be pushed to the next election. Unfortunately, the situation in 2020 seems to be the same.
“The challenge has been that it needs to go through several stages to get implemented, and it’s hard because we are one of the first cities to have this in place,” noted Beatriz Levya-Cutler, a School Board director. One challenge is that the voting machines have difficulty recognizing any birthdate after 2002, which complicates the recognition of 16 and 17-year-olds as voters. “Another part of the challenge has been that there has to be a way to separate the 16 and 17-year-old votes from the general population, because [the School Board election] is the only thing that [16 and 17-year-olds] can vote on.” Creating two ballots for the voting groups has proven difficult, particularly because the voting machines might not be able to handle multiple ballots.
“The county has to negotiate with the company that operates the ballot machines in order to do whatever calibration or technology adjustment … needs to be made. … The clerk is ready and open to doing this; it’s the technology that is not ready to implement with the voting machines,” explained Julie Sinai, another School Board director.
However, students like Love think there may be a solution to this dilemma. “We found out that San Francisco, which uses similar machines, has non-citizen voting and that uses two different ballots.” Furthermore, the organization Oakland Youth Vote is working to implement a measure similar to Y1, which will be on their November ballot. “If it passes in Oakland, it’ll make [Alameda] County more likely to fund both of the implementations,” said Love.
These are workable solutions, but they have become much less viable during the chaos that has taken place this year. In May, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all voters would be sent an absentee ballot for November’s election. However, recent mail-in-voting issues have thrown a hurdle in this effort, making it increasingly difficult to even add a second ballot into the mix.
“The county has had to readjust its whole election system to promote a vote-by-mail [election],” Sinai pointed out. “They have to put [Measure Y1] on pause because all of their resources are going into how to get out ballots and have a smooth presidential general election.”
In an explanation for additional challenges Love said, “Since we’re a youth led organization, it can be really hard to communicate with the Alameda County Registrar of Voters and the School Board.” Berkeley Vote16 must work much harder to get the attention of local leaders. Ultimately, Y1’s implementation remains dependent on government institutions taking action. Part of the problem, as Love described it, is with leaders’ priorities. “This mostly affects young people, so it’s not really the top priority for a lot of elected officials.”
As a result, Measure Y1 will not be ready to begin by November’s School Board election. Despite these setbacks, eligible residents are still strongly encouraged to vote. Miller emphasized, “We’ve lost a lot of things because we have lost this sense of normalcy, but voting, using your voice, or being politically active shouldn’t be one of them.” This election will no doubt be consequential, and voting is especially crucial in a time when things can feel helpless. Miller said, “Voting is one of the best ways to ensure some amount of safety in our government for us.”