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NJ Governor Murphy wants 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections statewide, according to an advance excerpt of the State of the State speech he’ll deliver Tuesday.

“I know, to some, this may sound unconventional. But voting is a lifelong habit. And studies show that, if a person votes in one election, they are more likely to turn out in the next election,” Murphy will say, according to a draft of his speech. “So, encouraging our young neighbors to engage with democracy is really about encouraging them to become lifelong voters.”

Murphy’s annual State of the State speech is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. and can be watched online.

Separately, the Newark City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on a measure to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in that city’s school elections. Officials said Newark would be the first city in New Jersey, and the largest in the U.S., to lower the voting age to 16 for an election.

Advocacy group Vote 16 New Jersey has been working for five years to achieve enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds. The group would like full voting rights, but is excited that Murphy is supporting the narrower goal of allowing voting in school board elections.

“And we hope that once we see the tremendous benefits that including youth in school elections can bring, we hope to also include them in the future in local municipality elections, where they are also affected greatly by those decisions,” said Yenjay Wu, 17, a senior at Westfield High School and the executive director of the Vote 16 New Jersey.

The governor invited Wu and another group co-founder and executive director, Anjali Krishnamurti, 18, of Sommerville to attend the speech.

The youth activists said the opposition they often hear from adults is that 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t mature enough to vote.

“But we’ve seen, especially being civically engaged young people, that this is simply not the case and our generation is truly extraordinary when it comes to civic engagement,” Krishnamurti, now a freshman at Harvard University, said. “We catalyze global social justice movements. We control online activist culture. We advocate for policy change.”

Krishnamurti is also involved with the national umbrella group for lowering the voting age, Vote 16 USA. Maryland has already lowered the age for school board elections, as have some cities around the country.

“We’ve spoken with and interviewed city clerks who have reported astonishing results of voter turnout, which is what is expected in New Jersey if it’s enacted,” Krishnamurti said. “So people have really demonstrated that young people will show up to the polls and they will establish a lifelong passion for civic duty.

Vote 16 New Jersey has published a list of places where young people had high voter turnout. It cites, for instance, the 2014 Chicago primary, when 17-year-olds had a higher turnout rate than any other age group from 18-48. In the 2013 Takoma Park, Maryland municipal election, it says, 16- and 17-year olds voted at a rate of 17%, twice that of the rest of the voting population.

Expanding voting rights will be a major theme in Murphy’s speech, according to an excerpt made available to WNYC/Gothamist. According to the draft, he will tick through his accomplishments in expanding access to voting — including instituting automatic voter registration and early in-person voting, restoring voting rights to people on parole, and signing a bill last week to allow 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the time of a general election to vote in the primary.

In addition to lowering the age for school board elections, Murphy also plans to push for same-day voter registration.

“Nobody should ever be denied access to the ballot box because they missed a deadline or forgot to send in paperwork,” a draft of the speech says.

A study by a research center at Tufts University found that New Jersey was among the states with the highest turnout for ages 18 to 29 in the 2020 election, with 67% of people in that age range voting, compared to an estimated 50% nationwide. New Jersey youth turnout in 2022 was only two-thirds the rate in 2020, but that wasn’t a presidential election year and had few competitive races on the ballot.

State Sen. Brian Stack, a Democrat from Hudson County, sponsored a bill in the 2022-23 legislative session to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school elections, but his bill never came up for a vote. Stack is retiring and the student activists said Raj Mukherji, the Democratic assemblyman who is taking Stack’s seat in the senate this week, has committed to sponsoring new legislation. Mukherji’s office has not yet returned a message left Monday seeking comment.

Vote 16 New Jersey has a coalition of statewide groups working by its side, including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. Henal Patel, the law and policy director for the organization, said it’s a critical time for young people to vote in school board elections, given fights over book banning and how race, gender and sexuality are taught.

“We’re seeing news about it all over the country,” Patel said. “But the people who have no voice in it are the ones who are the most impacted — young people.”

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