The Board of Education made history last night when it adopted a resolution supporting the efforts of Vote@16, a group working to lower the voting age in local school board elections. Jersey City is the first district in New Jersey to publicly support the initiative.
Vote@16 is spearheaded by youth leaders from the Ali Leadership Institute. According to the resolution, the stated goal of the initiative is “to combat the lack of youth representation in politics and increase engagement in the education system by lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.”
Trustee Gina Verdibello introduced the Vote@16 resolution to the board hoping it would encourage students to be more involved in local politics and have their voices heard in matters that directly affect them. The movement has the support of some local elected officials, including Assemblyman Raj Mukerji, State Senator Brian Stack, and County Commissioner Bill O’Dea.
Janhitha Veeramachaneni, Ana Nunez Molina, and Mariam Eryam are juniors at Infinity Institute who are involved in the Vote@16 efforts. They went to last night’s meeting as a show of support for the resolution.
“In order to be the change, we have to ignite the change,” said Veeramachaneni. She added that if teenagers are old enough to get taxed, work, and talk about policy, “why not vote.”
According to Molina, allowing 16-year-olds to vote gives students a direct platform to speak about the issues that directly impact them, specifically funding and curriculum concerns. “It is pretty important that the youth is involved in civic engagement,” she said.
Eryam said that while “some say we are immature,” teenagers are more intelligent and creative than they are given credit for, and this initiative gives them hope for the future.
After Trustee Verdibello introduced the resolution, there was a debate among members of the board about the merits of the resolution.
Vice President Noemi Velazquez, despite supporting general civic engagement of young people since her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, expressed her concerns that the efforts lacked inclusivity by not including the viewpoints of all students in the district.
Trustee Afaf Muhammad similarly felt that most students cannot tell the difference between the roles of government and are not ready to vote. “Once they are prepared then I will vote yes,” she said.
In support of the resolution, Trustee Younass Mohamed Barkouch clarified that the resolution was not an action, just supporting the efforts of the Vote@16 group. He hopes that this will foster students to become more politically active, give them learning opportunities, and hold candidates accountable for their actions.
The resolution narrowly passed with four yes votes, two votes, and two abstentions.
“I’m glad that it passed, but I was a little disappointed in some of my colleagues’ comments because I thought they weren’t really listening to what it really was about,” said Verdibello. “We made history today, so I’m happy about that.”
During public comment, local high school student Milan Zhu independently advocated for additional voting rights for Jersey City students.
Zhu proposed two additional seats on the board, one for a current student and one for a recent alum to create the “nation’s first youth-oriented Board of Education.” There is already one student representative invited to give input at board meetings, but Zhu’s proposal would add two new voting seats to the board.
“We are the future and we want to speak,” said Zhu, adding that lowering the voting age is just “baby steps” to further representation.