Newark, NJ, leads with a historic decision allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections, empowering thousands of teens and enhancing democracy.
Newark Leads with a Historic Decision
Newark City Council has taken a groundbreaking step by unanimously approving an ordinance to lower the voting age for school board elections to 16 and 17 years old. This move makes Newark the largest municipality in the United States to extend voting rights to younger people since the national voting age was reduced to 18 in 1971. Mayor Ras J. Baraka emphasized the importance of involving younger residents in the democratic process, asserting that “democracy is stronger when more people participate.”
The Ordinance and Its Impact
Council President LaMonica McIver, inspired by her own civic engagement aspirations sparked by lessons from her fifth-grade teacher (now Mayor Baraka), championed the ordinance. This historic change is expected to energize elections and significantly influence school board decisions, directly affecting over 7,000 teens in Newark, 90% of whom are Black and Brown. The initiative addresses the critical need for young people to have a say in policies that affect their education and well-being.
Community and Student Engagement
The decision followed extensive discussions and public comments from students, teachers, community leaders, and residents. Students like Nathaniel Esubonteng and Breanna Campbell, both juniors at Science Park High School, voiced their readiness and eagerness to participate in the electoral process, highlighting the disconnect between the youth’s alignment with candidates’ values and their inability to vote.
Civic Education and Future Steps
The ordinance is part of a broader initiative to enhance civic engagement among young people. The city council and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice are exploring collaborations with Newark Public Schools to integrate civic education into the curriculum. Governor Phil Murphy’s recent push for expanded voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds in school board elections across New Jersey complements Newark’s efforts.
Concerns and Considerations
While the ordinance was met with widespread support, some council members expressed concerns about potential implications, such as the inclusivity of immigrant teenagers and the risk of lowering voter turnout. Despite these reservations, the consensus underscored the importance of giving students a voice in matters directly impacting their education. The initiative also sparked discussions about the necessity of reinstating civics as a compulsory part of the curriculum statewide.
A Step Towards Broader Civic Participation
Newark’s decision to lower the voting age for school board elections marks a significant moment in advocating for youth engagement in democracy. This move empowers a new generation of voters and sets a precedent for other cities and states to follow. As Newark prepares for the upcoming Board of Education election on April 16, with the voter registration deadline on March 26, the city embarks on a new chapter of civic participation and educational advocacy.