YA Strike Zone August 2015

The Emerging Youth Suffrage Movement!

Implications for libraries when young people vote in local affairs

 Anthony Bernier

One of the oldest justifications for libraries serving young adults has a new lease on life.

In staff meetings, budget hearings, and in public forums, the pleading you can bet on hearing from YA advocates, regardless of its effectiveness, is “We need to serve them because if we don’t, they won’t support libraries when they’re old enough to vote.”

Well, I’ve got news: The goal-post is moving.

A new civil rights movement is forming and the profession should take it seriously. The clause “when they’re old enough to vote” is about to evaporate. At least, sixteen-year-olds will be voting soon if San Francisco joins several other smaller municipalities and an increasing number of other countries.

Bernier SFYC

Source: SFYC YouthVote webpage: vote16sf.wordpress.com

Because many adults reactively jump to arguments against the youth vote, I’ll address the two most common objections here and suggest some implications for libraries.

First, opponents of youth suffrage (voting in local elections from age sixteen) claim that young people lack capacity to exercise responsible judgment; second, youth voting would cause harm to the larger community.

Let’s set aside the obvious rebuttal for the moment that absolutely no evidence currently supports either of these claims. Nevertheless, since the dawn of modern political philosophy (from John Locke to Jürgen Habermas), theorists disqualified youth from inclusion in the community of the enfranchised because youth, they argued, lack “competence” and “knowledge” to vote responsibly.

The issue is not youth “competence” compared to a perfect state of wisdom and knowledge, but compared to the adults whom society currently enfranchises. Even if it was easy to establish what “competence” means (which, of course, it isn’t), capacity has never been a criterion for voting in democratic societies. The political “left” looks at FOX TV for examples of voter incompetence, and the “right” similarly looks that way at CNN.

Further, the “competence” card was played by racist Jim Crow voting and literacy test advocates from the late nineteenth century through the mid-1950s to prevent African Americans from voting–tests that many white people could not pass. Of course, that struggle continues. Also, men (and women) used “competency” to withhold suffrage from women until passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

A corollary to the “capacity” argument is that youth will not vote “independently” and succumb to parental, teacher, or (heaven forbid!) peer influence. Another red herring. Nobody acts entirely “independently” in the voting booth. Everyone votes within their own social, economic, and political contexts. Again, opponents leveled the same charge against other previously disenfranchised groups (i.e., husbands would unduly influence wives, employers would influence workers). No evidence supports the allegation that youth yield any more than adults to “influence.” Research on the Scottish independence referendum showed that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds were an independent and diverse-thinking electorate.

The second general argument opposing the youth vote is the harm it would cause the larger community. Instead of harm, however, youth voters would much more directly and better inform policy makers about young peoples’ actual experiences, rather than what happens now– in which adults interpret and translate for them. Political leaders, previously permitted to remain rather ignorant, would thus need to respect and attend to the institutions and issues that connect youth with society, especially at the municipal level: schools, health care, family and social welfare policy, criminal justice, environmental protection, and public spaces like recreation centers and libraries!*

In the past year, the movement for youth suffrage has gained significant victories. In addition to young people already voting in national elections (Scotland, Norway, Germany, Brazil, Austria, and Argentina), two communities in Maryland, (Takoma Park and Hyattsville) already benefit from expanding suffrage to sixteen-year olds and now San Francisco, a large and politically important city, is considering expanding the franchise.

Last December, the San Francisco Youth Commission heard testimony (including my own) and has since been studying, strategizing, and building support across the city. At least a half-dozen articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner (including one front page story), along with local TV news coverage, and several national and international stories, not to mention a growing profile in the blogosphere and forums in high schools this year. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is preparing to debate a resolution, drafted nearly entirely by eighteen-year-old Joshua Cardenas, to put the measure before the electorate in the 2016 presidential cycle.

The writing, as they say, is on the wall and libraries should attach themselves before it’s too late. Let’s briefly examine implications for libraries; some indirect, some direct.

Indirectly,youth voters will help elect mayors and city/town councils: the people who appoint library directors and board members. Youth would serve on campaigns in which young peoples’ experiences would matter in local political platforms: Does this candidate support a new main library (with a sufficiently-resourced YA services department)? Does that candidate appoint youth to commissions?

The direct implications for libraries in cities expanding the franchise promise even greater impacts. Though not yet proven, it is likely that young people would support initiatives touching their experiences through community services such as parks, recreation centers, and libraries–especially if those services demonstrated value.  In my own city, a safe assumption is that a youth vote would easily have helped win a new main library building. Instead, the measure lost by a fractional difference.

Second, young peoples’ efforts, as pro-library campaign volunteers, for example, would not appear as ill-fitting as they currently do. Libraries would have a greater interest in recruiting them for such efforts, rather than simply trotting them out as photogenic or needy for budget meetings or press conferences. Instead, libraries would actually account to them as citizens. Indeed, the appearances and roles of youth at all library functions, not simply marginalized for “YA events,” would carry more legitimacy.

Further, it would be easier for libraries to see the benefits in youth involvement within the broader profile of library operations – official youth appointments to library boards, commissions, and facility design teams, for instance, and even broader involvement in foundations. Youth representations on staff selection committees and in interviews would hold more validity as community representation. There would be more approval for young people attending annual library conferences and serving on presentation panels.

In this “Obama moment” of expanding civil rights for the GLBT and immigrant communities, the time is fast approaching when the culture will, finally, welcome young people into civic power. As libraries have supported broadening who counts and whose voices matter, they ought to now also be at the barricades for young people, too.

Support the youth vote in your community!

*For a more thorough treatment of these arguments I recommend the work of John Wall, philosophy professor at Rutgers University and author of Ethics in Light of Childhood (Georgetown Press, 2010).

Bernier headshotAnthony Bernier works at San Jose State University’s School Information where he conducts research, teaches, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick in 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.



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