BY: NIKKI MIRALA
At the forefront of the fight to lower the voting age is Tyler Okeke, a 19-year-old activist from California and former Student Member of the Board of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), working to ensure that the voice of the youth is represented nationwide.
Okeke’s position in activism and politics began in his sophomore year of high school when he applied to serve on the Los Angeles mayor’s youth council for his region. The following year, he ran for Student Member of the Board and served in his second year on the council where he worked to combat prominent issues such as gun violence. He then got involved with Power California, an organization dedicated to amplifying the voice of young people of color and their families to ensure that everyone is fairly represented in our government and “that voters and elected leaders mirror the rich diversity that is California,” (powercalifornia.org). Once he got involved with Power California and became familiar with the concept of voting at 16-years-old, he then introduced it to his “local school board (LAUSD), and that created an opportunity for us to collaborate and work together when it comes to expanding youth voting rights,” said Okeke, “and that’s work I’ve been doing ever since.”
In April of 2018, he introduced studying feasibility of lowering the voting age to 16 which sparked nationwide discourse about lowering the voting age, but due to COVID-19, the idea has unfortunately been put on the “policy back burner.” This summer, Okeke worked to create a California statewide coalition to support local and statewide measures to lower the voting age. With significant legislative advocacy and lobbying, Proposition 18, a measure that will allow 17-year-olds who turn 18 by the general election to vote in primary and special elections, will move forward to be voted on. Two other measures will advance as well; Measure G allows 16 and 17-year-olds in San Francisco to vote in municipal elections, and Measure QQ would extend the right to vote in school board elections to 16 and 17-year-olds in the city of Oakland.
While Tyler and organizations such as Power California are confident in their efforts to present youth with the opportunity to vote, many unfortunately aren’t as eager. Some worry about the lack of life experiences a 16-year-old may have, while others speculate that they aren’t aware of the democratic process. Okeke, however, was assertive in the idea that this new generation of voters would be more than capable in determining who is best fit to serve them and represent them in government.
“We are a generation that was brought up in the age of school shootings — in the age of vulnerable school campuses.” He continues, “we were brought up in the age of white supremacy and facism with the election of Donald Trump, so these have been deeply formative years for all of us, and we are informed by all of the things we’ve seen in action.” According to Okeke, there’s no lack of information when it comes to what young people know about the world around them and their ability to make informed, long lasting decisions.
“Because of the generation that we are and growing up as one of the most digitally connected and diverse generations to come, we have experienced these things much more deeply with more nuance than someone would have 10 years ago because of our access to, not only, knowing the issues in our community but issues around the world,” said Tyler.
Aside from the political awareness that this new generation of voters shares, this generation has also proven their responsibility time and time again according to Okeke.
“When you stratify and you really think about young people, especially young people of color or immigrant young people, they tend to work and take up incredible leadership positions in their home whether its providing translation services, helping their parents navigate systems, or taking care of their younger ones.” Okeke adds that especially during the coronavirus, a large number of young people were expected to help with their families income to ensure that their family would be able to survive through the pandemic.
Tyler strongly encouraged youth across the country to try to enfranchise themselves and urge the 16 and 17-year-olds around them to get involved.
“My strategy has always been that if there’s room for it in your school board, it’s the best place to do that given that’s the place that makes more sense for people immediately.” He continued to explain how it is most sensible for 16 and 17-year-olds to want to regulate the decisions made in their school such as the textbooks they use and the programs put in place, which is why one’s local school board is a great starting point.
“Start to have these conversations and create space for these things either in your school community or in your local community or with your family,” said Okeke. His message to all is to “have faith in our generation and our generation’s ability to make decisions about the world that we want to live in.”