Mahsjah Imes, a 15-year-old student at P.S. 24 in Jersey City, is on a mission to change the voting age from 18 to 16.
Although he hasn’t set a deadline on when he hopes to make the change, he said he would like to vote in the 2017 municipal election. In order to do that, New Jersey would have to change election law.
In 2017, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is expected to run for either mayor or governor. If he runs for governor, there will be new mayoral candidates ready to rumble.
Imes and other students at PS 24 have started a local chapter of the National Youth Rights Association, which is lobbying across the country for a lower voting age.
The United States Congress changed the voting age nationwide from 21 to 18 in 1971, partly because many kids were being drafted into service at 18 yet were unable to vote on the policies that shipped them off to Vietnam.
Imes believes he can make as nearly a compelling argument why the voting age should be lowered again.
Federal and state constitutions set guidelines for who is eligible to vote. They do not prohibit lowering the voting age.
Nearly 80 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds work before they graduate from high school. As a result, they pay taxes, yet have no say as to how those taxes get spent. Young people are faced early with retirement issues, and required to pay into Social Security, but have no voice in determining retirement policies.
Many kids have strong views about the environment, yet cannot influence leaders by voting for or against those who share or oppose their views. Those same kids are the most impacted by education policies in their communities, and yet cannot vote for those who make decisions that directly affect their lives.
“The majority of the students strongly support the change of age.” – Mahsjah Imes
“I was surprised but not shocked to learn that over 200,000 juveniles are tried [for crime] as adults in this country, most ranging in age from 15 to 17 years old,” he wrote in one essay. “That got me to thinking about how teens have one foot in adulthood and one in childhood.”
Teens, he said, are an age when they face life-altering decisions such as which career to choose and college to attend.
“They can do all of this, but what they absolutely cannot do is vote,” he said.
A nationwide push
Last July, Imes became aware of a national movement to lower the voting age, and decided to begin lobbying local officials to do the same in Jersey City.
“I got inspired,” he said.
Towns elsewhere in the country have changed their laws to allow younger people to vote, and other communities are discussing the issue.
He said they’ve approached members of the City Council, such as Council President Rolando Lavarro, trying to get him to lobby on their behalf. Local assembly members appear to be sympathetic to the cause, and could raise the issue of change during future sessions of the state legislature.
“Right now we’re concentrating on organizing at our school,” he said, hoping to have the organization up and running by mid-2016.
He and his fellow organizers spoke to members of the Jersey City Board of Education to get the okay to recruit.
“We spoke with Marilyn Roman to let her know what we’re trying to do,” Imes said.
During lunch time or before and after school, the group has been taking a survey of students to determine how much support the issue has.
“The majority of the students strongly support the change of age,” Imes said.
The group, however, is also tackling some of the other concerns students have, such trying to change the district policy against student use of cellular phones at school.
More information and statistics regarding the lowering of voting age can be found at the national organization’s website: http://www.right.org.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.