New Jersey’s Biggest City Grants Voting Rights to Minors

( – Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, might not be the first municipality to approve and implement minors voting in local elections, notably school board elections, but it’s possibly the largest metro area in the nation to do so. The council voted on Wednesday, January 17, on a measure sponsored by LaMonica McIver, the council president, to extend voting rights to minors aged 16 and 17 to participate in school board elections.

A “Direct Learning Experience”

Ras J. Baraka, Newark’s current mayor and a former high-school principal, supported the measure, which he called a “direct learning experience,” according to The New York Times. He pointed out that school board elections could serve as a valuable “training ground and opportunity,” allowing young people to learn about the electoral process firsthand and engage civically.

Situated about 10 miles west of the Manhattan borough of New York City, Newark boasts a population comprised of more than 90% Black and Latino residents. Statistics showed that a mere 3.1%, or just over 6,000 registered voters, in the city participated in the 2023 school board election. The new measure qualifies approximately 7,000 school-aged 16- and 17-year-old voters for the next election in April.

As 16-year-old Nathaniel Esubonteng, one of the student advocates for the new ordinance, said, students will have a voice in the electoral process because “They will actually have to listen to us.” Andrew Wilkes, a spokesperson for the non-profit civics group Generation Citizen, called the measure “the most consequential effort to lower the voting age” in the nation.

Concerns and Experiences Elsewhere

One of the first places in the nation to extend voting to residents as young as 16 was Takoma Park, Maryland, not far from the nation’s capital. The small suburb of 17,000 people began allowing younger voters in 2013. Brattleboro, Vermont, a town of only about 12,000, approved the measure last year.

Oakland and Berkeley, California, approved ballot measures giving 16-year-olds local voting privileges in school board elections in both 2016 and 2020. However, the media reported the cities never implemented the measure due to registration issues. Oakland and Berkeley have a combined population almost 45% larger than Newark’s. The city hasn’t yet faced how it will register teen voters and qualify them to vote only in a single election.

Additionally, opponents of the ordinance questioned whether 16- and 17-year-olds had the maturity or the civics education to participate in an election. Yet, proponents like Esubonteng and another student advocate, Breanna Campbell, 16, as well as critics, are asking for more robust civics education.

Yet, one council member, Carlos Gonzales, expressed concern, asking where the push to lower voting ages might end. He suggested that students might ask to run for school board positions without the financial understanding necessary to fulfill them. He also queried whether the next push would be for students as young as 14 to vote.

Still, in New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s (D) State of the State address on January 9, he pushed for every state community to follow Newark’s example. He reasoned that getting students involved in the electoral process sooner could help them become more habituated to the civic duty of voting and keep them more involved.

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