If Elliot Kmetz has his way, 16-year-olds will get the right to vote in municipal elections. The 17-year-old Norman High School student will provide a presentation to the Norman League of Women Voters (LWV) at 2 p.m. Sunday by video and telephone conference. The league has not endorsed or rejected his Vote 16 campaign, their statement reads.
“It’s not just about giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote but educating them on how to register vote and starting them out on a good habit of voting,” he said.
Mayor Breea Clark said during the June 16 council meeting that an ordinance would be introduced for council consideration to lower the voting age to 16. If it is passed by council, Norman could be the first city in Oklahoma to allow teens the right to vote in municipal elections.
Mike Fina, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, said he had not heard of any city in the state allowing it.
“We had a conference call with mayors [Wednesday],” Fina said. “Breea was talking about it and honestly, it’s the first time I’ve heard of it. I think that the first time the mayors had heard of it, so I can safely say no other cities have discussed it yet.”
Kmetz said he launched his campaign after he attended a YMCA sponsored trip to Washington, D.C., in March where he listened to a presentation on Vote 16 by the national campaign.
He surveyed Norman public school high school students to see how many would vote if they had the opportunity and which issues mattered most to them.
“For the question, do you support lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections, 76% support the initiative. When asked if students would participate in local elections, 88% said they wanted to vote,” Kmetz said. “The sample size was more than 600 students and the data shows that high schoolers really want to vote and they’re wanting to be more involved in their school, in their local and political environment.”
The survey revealed the issues that interested high school students included matters that impacted them directly, Kmetz said.
“The No. 1 thing was school funding,” he said. “It affects them directly and they have so much iniative to go out there and affect that. That was the No. 1 issue; second affordable housing. They brought up five major issues, including quality-of-life issues, taxes and voting rights.”
Kmetz said he looked for support from his councilor, Ward 4 Lee Hall and Clark.
Hall said the matter will be discussed during the Aug. 13 Oversight Committee Meeting.
“Civics education paired with a lower voting age may lead to increased civic engagement and a lifelong voting habit,” Hall told The Transcript. “He has done his research as well as conducting a survey of Norman high school students. I am looking forward to a robust conversation about this idea at the City Council Oversight Committee meeting in August.”
Clark said she, too, is looking forward to hearing the discussion.
“I am definitely interested in learning more about it because I think if we can do something that will increase civic engagement in young people and encourage a higher voter turnout in local elections, we should do it. Takoma Park, Maryland has great experience with this initiative.”
Clark pointed out that if accepted by the council, the ordinance to lower the voting age would be put to a vote of the public as it requires a charter amendment.
During his research, Kmetz said encountered criticism of the Vote 16 movement. While critics say 16 year old’s are too young to comprehend the issues that face society, Kmetz said there is no developmental difference between an 18 and 16 year old.
Kmetz points to a study found on Vote 16 USA’s website which suggests this age group is cognitively equal to their older peers. One study, “Hot and Cold Thinking: Why 16-Year-Olds Are Smart Enough to Vote But Not Drink,” says their brains are not fully developed enough to make good decisions in high stress, high emotional “hot” situations until age 21 to 25. The same study asserts that “cold” cognitive function related to deliberation and measured decisions, such as voting, are equal in capacity at age 16 as they are in adulthood.
A second criticism is that teens will be persuaded to vote as their parents or authority figures do, Kmetz said.
“That’s absolutely wrong,” he said. “They said the same thing about wives when they gave women the right to vote.”
A third criticism is that the movement is sponsored or motivated by a political party.
“That it’s all about partisan politics is absolutely wrong,” he said. “Sixteen and 17 year olds, it’s just about giving them the right to vote and it’s only in municipal elections. It’s more about education, how to vote and starting a good habit of voting so we’re creating voter participation throughout their lives. It’s not about partisan politics. That should be nowhere near this issue. If you’re running for city council, you don’t bring up if you’re Democrat or Republican. You say, ’I’m running for these issues.’”
However, city politics could be showing shades of blue or red if a local petition is successful. The petition would require city council to disclose their party affiliation on campaign materials and on the ballot. While it would not designate a council’s position as Republican or Democrat, the petition would reveal the candidate’s affiliation. If petition signatures are verified and there is no legal challenge, the measure would be subject to voter approval as a charter amendment.
Kmetz will face local opposition from Unite Norman, the group that has formed to recall several city council members and Clark.
“The mayor’s proposal to lower the voting thresholds is bad for Norman,” said Russell Smith, the group’s committee co-chair. “Normanites are finding out what happens when voters aren’t fully informed and engaged — it wins you this city council. We need higher-informed voters, not less-informed.”
Several cities are considering lowering the voting age, including San Francisco whose voters did not approve the measure in 2016 but will again vote in November 2020.