Guest Opinion: Let the queerest generation vote

  • by Ewan Barker Plummer
  • Wednesday November 8, 2023
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Ewan Barker Plummer. Photo: Courtesy Ewan Barker Plummer
Ewan Barker Plummer. Photo: Courtesy Ewan Barker Plummer

Growing up in San Francisco as a queer teen, I know how important the work of LGBTQ+ community leaders has been in creating a more accepting city. It is thanks to those who marched, protested, ran for office, and demanded equal treatment that today San Francisco is a beacon of hope and refuge for queer people.

The result of their work can be seen directly in Gen Z: we are the queerest generation in history. Nearly 20% of Gen Z openly identifies as LGBTQ+, compared to less than 3% of baby boomers. This didn't happen by accident — it was made possible by those before us.

San Francisco is one of the nation's most accepting communities for young people to explore their identities and be their authentic selves. I say this not to discount the struggles many LGBTQ+ kids and teens face in our city — as an advocate for queer youth I can tell you there are still many challenges and barriers — I say this to make the argument that we must continue this work because it is working.

The key to future success is going to be empowering youth to have real, tangible input on our city. We need to engage this next generation in determining the future of our city. It's time to let the queerest, and most accepting, generation vote.

Longtime San Francisco voters will be familiar with efforts to expand the voting age to 16 in local elections, also known as Vote16. It has narrowly lost twice, first in 2016 (by over 2%) and again in 2020 (by less than 1%). I'm asking San Francisco voters to consider this once again, but this time with a new perspective — that expanding the voting age will also enlarge the electorate of queer and allied voters and empower them to continue the work of building a welcoming city.

It's a difficult question — how do we determine the limits on who can and cannot participate in our representative democracy? There are a lot of arbitrary lines that can, and have, been drawn. Politicians often utilize this question to build their own support and disadvantage those who lean another way. I believe that to counter this, we must look at the facts to make an informed decision on where to draw the line. And when we do, we see that the best time to start voting is 16 years old.

I know most peoples' first reactions are that 16- and 17-year-olds are too impulsive and immature to have a say. But the science tells us otherwise. Research from the American Psychological Association proves that by 16 years old, teens have fully developed "cold cognition" skills; the intellectual maturity needed for measured, non-rushed, and sufficient decision-making. Importantly, cold cognition is the physiological process voters use when they research election issues and fill out their ballot.

Voting for 16- and 17-year-olds will also help create ways for new voters to ask questions, learn how to find diverse opinions, and determine facts from fiction (especially in a world increasingly dominated by social media misinformation). These new voters will be in schools where civic education — teaching skills like how to find truthful media coverage and when/how to fill out and return your ballot — can be taught alongside their first election. There will be guide rails in place as teens start considering their votes on long-term choices.

Relatedly, starting to vote at 16 has proved to increase voter retention. The age of 18 is a year of transition, whether that be from starting college, getting a new job, or moving out of your childhood home. Registering to vote just isn't top of mind for every new adult, and it is a voluntary responsibility that is easily pushed aside. But registering to vote and voting for the first time while in school can make voting less complex and intimidating, leading to an ongoing, lifelong habit. Research published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties directly relates lowering the voting age with an increase in habitual voting. We can see this in other places where the voting age has been lowered, like Argentina and Austria, which all now have higher voter turnout rates than the United States, thanks to voter retention.

It's time to embrace the progress we have made — creating the most accepting and open generation in history — by empowering them to participate in our democracy. San Francisco is at a decision-point, from unaffordable housing costs to a homelessness crisis, and these issues impact the next generation of San Franciscans like no other. We should have a voice and a vote in the future of our city.

San Francisco has the opportunity to lead the nation as the first major city to expand the voting age, but it is not unprecedented. Takoma Park, Maryland became the first city to adopt a 16-year-old voting age in 2013, and in the following election 16- and 17-year-olds had the highest turnout of any age group. Here in the Bay Area, both Berkeley and Oakland have recently voted to lower the voting age for school board elections. A recent court case involving San Francisco's policy of allowing immigrant parents to vote in school board elections upheld the city's right to make its own decisions on who may vote.

Once again, San Francisco can lead the way, and this time by empowering youth and expanding our democracy.

Ewan Barker Plummer is a queer youth advocate who serves as the chair of the San Francisco Youth Commission. He is working with a coalition of youth and adult allies to place a charter amendment on the November 2024 election ballot to expand the voting age to 16 in local elections.

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