Members of the #Vote16DC coalition speak about their efforts to expand voting rights to 16- and 17-year-old District residents during a Jan. 10 town hall at THEARC on Mississippi Avenue SE. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the #Vote16DC coalition speak about their efforts to expand voting rights to 16- and 17-year-old District residents during a Jan. 10 town hall at THEARC on Mississippi Avenue SE. (Courtesy photo)

To this day, the sting of defeat continues to burn for the young people who, on several occasions, spoke to the D.C. Council about their sense of powerlessness against the societal ills affecting their generation, only for the city’s legislative body to table a bill that would have given them more latitude in addressing those issues.

For Micah Carter, a student at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Northwest and member of the #Vote16DC coalition, the denial of teenage voting rights she experienced last fall meant she and her peers wouldn’t be able to use to the ballot to elect those they believe to be committed to closing gaps in mental health services and improving school equity in the District.

“I remember getting a call that the bill didn’t pass,” said Micah, 16, as she recounted the bevy of emotions that engulfed her peers in their failed attempt to secure voting rights for more than 11,000 District 16- and 17-year-olds in November. “Some of us were definitely disappointed but we weren’t discouraged.”

Micah counted among a handful of young people who recently participated in a public gathering at THEARC on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast focused on teenage voting rights. More than 50 community members listened and weighed in at the Ward 8 #Vote16 town hall on Jan. 10.

The event, sponsored by the Black Swan Academy, Ward 8 State Board of Education Representative Markus Batchelor, and the #OurLivesMatter coalition of the FBR Branch of the Boys & Girls Club, counted as part of what Micah described as a strategy to boost awareness, and support, for 16- and 17-year-old residents seeking access to the ballot box.

“We knew we had to kick back harder,” Micah said. “The strategy is to get the word out about the legislation and get council members back on board. Some of them said they felt young people of color wouldn’t vote. They felt we weren’t educated enough about civic engagement or mature enough for such a big responsibility. It was a bit of a shocker to hear them say that, especially those who have children.”

By November, support for the Youth Vote Amendment Act, introduced by Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) for the second time in three years, gave way to the skepticism some lawmakers had about its popularity. In the end, seven D.C. Council members, including Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) voted to postpone deliberation on the Youth Vote Amendment Act for 2018.

In the months leading up the council’s decision, #Vote16DC members spoke before the council’s judiciary committee and appealed to individual council members while taking the streets.

Bonds, who awarded the #Vote16DC youth for their service at the Community Cornerstone Award late last year, commended the young activists for their efforts but said it takes more than a couple presentations to shift paradigms.

“I was always hoping that they were able to show resounding support from students in the public schools, not just those in the private and charter schools,” Bonds told The Informer. “I would like to see more neighborhood leaders, and the community at large, support this legislation. I don’t really know why there wasn’t any support. It takes a while for subject matter to drill down to the masses. It might sound like a great idea but folks in the majority have to indicate that.”

If approved, the Youth Vote Amendment Act would have allowed 16- and 17-year-old District residents to vote in local elections, similar to what had been done in the nearby Maryland cities of Takoma Park, Greenbelt, and Hyattsville. Unlike their peers on those jurisdictions, 16- and 17-year-olds in D.C. would’ve been able to vote for federal offices.

During the first quarter of 2019, District youth will have ample opportunity write about voting rights for 16- and 17-year-old residents with essay contests coordinated by Black Swan Academy and the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute.

At the Wilson Building in Northwest, Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and vocal supporter of youth voting rights, hasn’t given any indication about the future of bill. Attempts to reach his office for comment were unsuccessful.

Beyond the council chambers, those who oppose lowering the voting age to 16 cite skepticism that 16- and 17-year-olds could form political opinions independent that of older family members. Questions even surfaced about voter turnout, particularly in Ward 8, a section of the city with a significant proportion of young people.

But some youth, such as Tionna Gay, said those rebuttals overlook the power of the youth perspective in an evolving society.

“When most 16- and 17-year olds talk to adults, they tend to come up with ideas that surprise adults because their minds are more imaginative,” said Tionna, a freshman at Anacostia High School in Southeast and #Vote16DC coalition member who participated in and invited friends to the forum.

“Everything we’re thinking about is headed toward the future,” she said. “This could help D.C. because we can push this city’s thinking beyond its limits. People assume that because we’re young, we’re not focused on what’s going on in our communities. But we have to grow up in these surroundings and eventually raise children here, so it would make sense for us to want to make it better.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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