By Griffin Limerick

In a way, it started at a conference for young people.

Back in 2014, at a Young Elected Officials Network conference convened for public officeholders under the age of 35, Patrick Paschall observed a voting rights panel hosted by former Maryland state senator, now U.S. congressman, Jamie Raskin. 

A year prior, in 2013, Raskin’s hometown of Takoma Park had just become the first municipality in the country to lower the legal voting age to 16 for local elections. The move was part of a larger push by Raskin for expanded voting rights, including same-day voter registration and an expansion of voting by mail.

Paschall, who had just been elected to Hyattsville City Council in 2013, said he stopped Raskin in the hallway after the panel to tell him he admired his work. 

“He gave me some additional tips on what kinds of things might come up in the (voting rights) debate, and I brought those ideas back to the community here in Hyattsville,” Paschall said.

That same year, in 2014, Paschall put forward a measure to lower the voting age to 16 in Hyattsville for city elections. The measure passed a little before midnight on January 5, 2015, by a vote of 7 to 4, in a city council chambers so full of young residents eager to express their opinions that several people had to wait in the hall, according to The New York Times.

One of the dissenting votes that night was former city councilmember, now mayor, Robert Croslin, who wanted the issue to be placed as a referendum on the public ballot. For years, Croslin had advocated for a teen city council, in which “teenagers would elect their own representatives and their own mayor and be tutored by the council.”

“They would learn what it takes to run a city and why it’s important to vote,” Croslin said. “Plus, we would learn from them what’s important, what their reason for being in Hyattsville is.”

For Paschall, however, allowing teenagers to cast a ballot isn’t merely about educating them, but about providing them their due rights as residents.

“It’s my belief that every resident of the City of Hyattsville has an absolutely equal stake in who should represent them,” Paschall said. “I don’t believe that it’s appropriate for us to give halfway rights, or partial rights, or training-wheels rights.”

Nine years after Paschall’s youth voting measure, it remains to be seen whether Hyattsville teenagers are taking advantage of their enfranchisement. According to numbers provided by City Clerk Laura Reams, in the June 2022 mayoral special election, 11% of registered 16- and 17- yea- olds voted (nine total), while in the October special election in Ward 2 for that year, 18% turned out (eight total). 

Croslin said he hasn’t noticed much difference in youth involvement since the legislation was passed. However, he also pointed out that Hyattsville voter turnout in general is low — only 22% of overall voters showed up for that same 2022 mayoral special election, according to the city’s website.

Screenshot 2023 04 12 4.45.06 PM
Photo credit: City of Hyattsville

“It’s hard to get adults to vote,” Croslin said. “The numbers are really bad. If you broaden it, have more people able to vote, what does that do? Does that get more people involved?”

Although overall voter turnout in Hyattsville has increased significantly over the past two years — mostly due to the introduction of city-wide vote by mail, according to Hyattsville Communications Manager Cindy Zork  — a clear answer to the question of what mobilizes teen voters has yet to emerge. In 2021, during the Ward 1 special election, the City of Hyattsville partnered with the University of Maryland and Vote 16 — a national campaign that supports lowering the voting age at local and national levels — in a study to gauge whether “contacting voters specifically about the ability for people under 18 to vote would increase turnout.”

According to a report published on the website, the city clerk sent a postcard mailer to the 2,816 voters in Ward 1. Some voters received a specialized postcard emphasizing that 16- and 17-year-olds could vote, while others received a more general voting message. Numbers for 16- and 17-year-olds voting did improve that year – 41% voted overall, according to Reams – but “the study found that the special messaging about 16 and 17 year old voting did not increase turnout more than a regular card,” notes the website.

Another strategy has been to target teenage voters at school. Reams said in an email that, although no formal partnership is in place, over the past eight years, the city has “regularly visited Northwestern High School to engage youth on voting and register eligible 16+ voters.” Outreach outside of school has recently included a registration event at the Hyattsville Teen Center in February and a visit by the Board of Supervisors of Elections to the Teen Action Group at the Hyattsville Library in March.

Jackson Yoder, a sophomore at DeMatha Catholic High School who turned 16 last October and plans on voting in the next election, said in an email that he didn’t learn about his ability to vote at school, but rather from his parents.

“I was really surprised because, from what I knew, you had to be 18 to vote, period, but they informed me of the new rules in Hyattsville,” Yoder said, adding he is excited to participate.

This synergistic effect of voters within a shared household nudging one another toward the polls is precisely why it’s so important for 16- and 17-year-olds to get involved, said Paschall, who noted that often teenage voters are the ones who influence their parents to vote, rather than vice versa. Paschall dubbed such a teenage voter a “spreader of democracy.” 

“The idea behind it is, we can — over the period of a generation — make it a voting habit norm that spreads more broadly and starts at an earlier age, which hopefully then ultimately increases voter turnout across a lifespan,” Paschall said.

Election day is May 9. Voters may register on the same day they vote at the Hyattsville Municipal building, 4310 Gallatin Street.