Originally published Nov. 13, 2018, in Washingtonian.
If 17-year-old Greta Jelen could vote, she would support local politicians in favor of decriminalizing Metro-fare evasion, which she says disproportionately impacts DC youth of color. Jelen, a senior at School Without Walls, speaks passionately about acquaintances who have spent the night in jail for sidestepping Metro payment and the injustice of a $300 fine when someone can’t even pay the $2 fare.
Gun control, reducing education gaps across the city, managing rising rents from gentrification and decriminalizing fare evasion—the political issues concerning Washington’s 16- and 17-year-olds reflect the same policy questions raised by adults decades older.
In 2020, anyone 16 and over may be eligible to vote in DC, if a bill to lower the voting age for federal and local elections passes the DC Council on Tuesday. In that eventuality, DC will be the first jurisdiction that allows 16 year olds to vote in federal elections, and one of few allowing local votes.
More than 10,400 youth would have a say in local and federal elections, a point not lost on 16-year-old Alik Schier, one of the youth leaders for the Vote16DC campaign. In a city of 600,000, Schier says, allowing more than 10,000 more residents to vote is a significant increase—one he hopes inspires other cities to pass similar measures.
Schier became involved with Vote16DC when another organization he volunteers with, the Young Womens Project, began supporting the campaign. Since joining the team in early 2018, canvassing neighborhoods, holding weekly meetings and testifying to the committee are part of Schier’s routine. His activism on the campaign is motivated by his frustration with elected officials, especially in the wake of March for Our Lives.
“When I heard the bill was being introduced, I thought this is the perfect time to do this. The attention’s on young people, the spotlight’s on us—we have the nation’s attention,” Schier says. “I was really excited to finally let my voice be heard for real.”
Word-of-mouth from her Wilson High School classmates like Schier is how Michaela Bauman, 16, first heard about the push for youth enfranchisement. The disquieting nature of gun violence, particularly in schools, is why Bauman supports a lower voting age.
“We’re the kids, we live with this fear every day of school shooting,” she says. “We should be able to have a say in putting people in power who support restrictions on guns.”
Education policy is made without the input of the students it impacts the most, Bauman, who is not involved with Vote16DC, says. Jelen recounted the reading level gap between her peers at Alice Deal Middle School, where students come from an area encompassing Mount Pleasant to Chevy Chase.
Jelen, who went to Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest DC, noticed she had a much higher reading ability than some of her peers.
“For as long as I can remember, the city has been incredibly segregated,” she says about the experience. “How did I come from the same public education system, and I’m able to read like this and they can’t.”
Tiffany Missembe, also a Wilson High School junior, described the disparity in the education available to her at Wilson compared to high schools in east-of-the-river neighborhoods. Missembe is able to take nearly all Advanced Placement courses, an opportunity not consistently afforded across DC.
A vote is a “voice for the voiceless,” Missembe, who is 16 and the daughter of immigrants, says. Since her parents are unable to vote, casting a vote would give Missembe the ability to stand up in their place.
Helisa Cruz, 16, is a third-generation immigrant living in Brookland, a neighborhood that’s rapidly changing. Voting is a way to influence her community’s development, the BASIS DC Public Charter School junior says: “I knew a lot of people personally who had to leave my neighborhood and go to more unsafe places in DC because they could not afford to live in Brookland anymore,” she says.
Cruz says the issues she cares about are the ones that impact her directly. Conceding that she could lobby councilmembers or send emails about policies, voting is nonetheless unique.
“It’s not the same as voting,” she says. “Voting is totally different—it’s what this democracy is built on.”