Members of the Greenbelt Youth Action Committee hand out flyers and campaign to lower the voting age
Jeremy Tuthill and Julia Sharapi of Greenbelt’s Youth Advisory Committee campaign to lower the voting age.

In last week’s elections, the voters of Greenbelt, MD voted 53% in support of lowering the voting age to 16 in local elections. This non-binding referendum was the first time that voters in the US have chosen to lower the voting age to 16 for all local elections.* NYRA staff interviewed two of the people, Ema Smith, Chair of Greenbelt’s Youth Advisory Committee, and Julia Sharapi, its Secretary, on their hard work in bringing about this historic victory.

NYRA: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got interested in lowering the voting age?

Julia: Sure, I’m currently 17-years-old and I joined the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) just after I turned 15. At that point the Committee was looking into lowering the voting age, but it wasn’t a pressing issue for most of us. It was really Ema that pushed for it and it wasn’t until we did the research and I learned more about it that I thought it would be great idea – to be able to get that experience before going to college before I have to do it on my own.

Ema: In 2015, I saw in a local newspaper that the Youth Advisory Committee was going to look at the lowering the voting age and that really interested me in a positive way.  I joined the Committee and was still a new member when we sent in our first report. In 2016, I was elected Chair of the committee and I did more research on the issue and I’ve solidly stood on the side [of lowering the voting age] ever since.

NYRA: You mentioned that this was a two-year process. Can you walk us through that?

Ema: In 2015, a citizen proposed the issue of lowering the voting age to the City Council in response to what happened in Hyattsville [a town close to Greenbelt that lowered its voting age]. The Council referred this issue to YAC. We then researched it and came up with a recommendation to the Council to lower the voting age.

Julia: When we first talked to City Council they were hesitant. In 2015, they asked voters if they supported lowering the voting age and even though less than 20% of voters voted, a majority did not want it lowered. The City Council referred the matter to two boards: Advisory Board on Education and the Community Relations Advisory Board. We did more research and created presentations for these Boards. We also conducted a poll of high school students to see if they wanted to vote and would be willing to vote. Most 16- and 17-year-olds felt they were mature enough.

Ema: We also attended work sessions that really nailed down the specifics of the amendment and had a public meeting when the Council decided to put it to a referendum. We made brochures and canvassed different neighborhoods. I encouraged my mom to write a letter to the editor of our local newspaper. We attended voter rallies for City Council members and brought it up at city debates to keep it fresh in people’s minds.

NYRA: That’s a lot of work. When you were canvassing or talking to the public in general what was the response like?

Julia: Previously with the council, if they didn’t support us they were very polite about it. But during canvassing, we’d get people saying “No, you’re alright, but my grandkids are irresponsible,” and I realized “Oh yeah, there are people who don’t think this is a good idea.” It was unexpected.

Ema: With adults I generally try to explain the reasons why. Most people think it’s interesting and even if they aren’t initially inclined [to support the idea] they become more accepting. We got a positive response with young people. In the poll of high school students, we got 100 responses, and 89% said they supported lowering the voting age.

NYRA: What are the next steps?

Julia: The City Council still has to vote on it. We believe they will vote yes, but we’re also going to collect contact information of 16- and 17-year-olds to get them to attend the meeting when the Council votes on it.

NYRA: What advice do you have for other people working on lowering the voting age in their area?

Ema: Just make sure people are aware and that you educate the public on the arguments.

Julia: Keep it positive. It’s hard when you’re told that people our age are disrespectful and irresponsible, but we kept moving forward. We were nervous [the referendum wouldn’t pass], but it’s possible, if you really believe in something and believe it’s right.

NYRA: Thank you!

Are you inspired by the success in Greenbelt and want to start your own campaign? Check out our resources on the voting age and start a NYRA Chapter!

*Berkeley, CA voters agreed to lower the voting age to 16, but only for School Board Elections.

This interview has been edited for clarity.