Linh Le and Ixchel Arista, both rising seniors at Oakland High, pose for a photo at Fremont High School in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Since the 2020 passage of Measure QQ, a ballot measure that lowered the voting age for Oakland school board races to 16, youth leaders in Oakland have been working to raise awareness amongst their peers with the expectation of exercising that privilege this November. 

It turns out, they’ll need to wait a while longer.

Last month, the youth organizers learned that the Alameda County Registrar’s office won’t be able to implement the changes needed for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in time for the November election, which includes races for three open seats on the Oakland school board. That means it will be at least another two years—until the next city election—before youth of that age are able to cast a vote for school board.

“I’ve been working on this for the past three years, this year is the fourth year, and it’s something that I really care about,” said Linh Le, a youth organizer with Oakland Kids First, one of the organizations involved with Measure QQ. “Even though we won’t be able to vote this November, the work is going to continue.”

Over the past few years, a coalition of youth organizers had worked with City Council members to get the measure onto the November 2020 ballot, spearheaded a campaign to gather support for it, and spoke out about it at public meetings and protests. Although Measure QQ received approval from two-thirds of voters, implementing the youth vote has been tricky. To do so, the county registrar must update its voting systems to recognize teens as legitimate voters and figure out the most efficient way to print separate ballots for students with just a single race on them, all while ensuring the integrity of the voting system.

The county registrar’s office missed a July deadline to submit a plan for how exactly it would move past those hurdles by November, said Roxana Franco, the youth organizing manager with Oakland Kids First who has been receiving updates from the registrar. 

“Now our ask is for the registrar to develop the plan as soon as possible,” Franco said. “Sure, the ship has sailed on this timeline and unfortunately young people will not be able to vote [in November], but they can show us that they are proactively working on this issue and prioritizing this issue by developing a plan as soon as possible.”

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Oaklandside. 

Despite their disappointment, the youth leaders are moving forward with their work to get more youth civically engaged. They worked with the OUSD school board to pass a resolution in June that directs the district to establish High School Voter Education Weeks in September and April, set up voter registration drives on school campuses, and incorporate civic engagement into school curriculums. They’ve visited schools and classes to encourage other students to pre-register to vote, and sometimes faced apathy from their peers.

“We always presented it in classrooms that it was going to happen, that we’ll be able to vote. It was hard to convince students that it mattered,” said Melisa Rodriguez, a youth organizer with Oakland Kids First and rising junior at Fremont High School. “Now that we’re not going to be able to, it’s a big letdown and really disappointing.”

The youth coalition surveyed 1,500 OUSD high school students to learn what their education priorities are, and will use the responses to create a student justice platform. They found that across campuses, students have many of the same concerns. 

“Cleanliness, sanitation, mental health and holistic wellness, relationships with teachers, post-high school readiness .. a myriad of issues have come up,” said Ixchel Arista, another youth organizer with Oakland Kids First and a rising senior at Oakland High School. “The hope is that we use this to elect people who are going to follow through. This is what students are saying they need.” 

In the fall, they plan to roll out the student justice platform. Even though 16 and 17-year-olds won’t be able to vote, the youth organizers hope that students will be motivated to learn more about the school board races and evaluate the candidates using the platform. 

Other cities in the Bay Area that have attempted to expand the right to vote to youth and noncitizens have also faced challenges. In 2016, Berkeley voters approved Measure Y1, which lowered the voting age for school board races. But the measure restricted the city of Berkeley from contributing funds to implementing it, leaving the financial burden on Berkeley Unified School District. Despite the measure having been approved six years ago, 16- and 17-year-olds in Berkeley haven’t been able to cast a vote in BUSD elections. 

In San Francisco, voters in 2016 approved a measure allowing parents who aren’t citizens to vote in school board races, but that measure was overturned by a San Francisco Superior Court judge last month, who cited the California Constitution. This November, Oakland voters will be asked to expand the franchise again, to noncitizen parents of Oakland students

Le, a rising senior at Oakland High School, will be one of two student directors on the OUSD board this year. The delay in the implementation of the youth vote has made it even more of a priority of hers to amplify youth voices. 

“Whatever students want, I’m going to uplift it 100%,” Le told The Oaklandside. “When I vote, I’m going to say, ‘This is what students want. We’re speaking on behalf of students, so you should do the same thing.’”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.