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Extending vote to 14-year-olds isn’t way to change things

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POSTED January 22, 2010 2:26 a.m.
Al Fleming Jr. was a cool seventh grade social studies teacher.

I have no idea how he would feel about the periodical effort in the California Legislature to move forward legislation that would give teens as young as 14 the right to vote.

But I do know how he felt in 1968 about Richard Nixon running against Hubert Humphrey. At the end of a classroom discussion in a moment of exasperation, he blurted out we should urge our parents not to vote for Nixon.

Whether he intended to be that strong, he made no doubt about his politics. To his credit, when he was challenged, he didn’t belittle or punish. His goal was to get us to think. And given his involvement with the Placer County Democratic Party organization, he was fairly balanced almost 99 percent of the time except on occasional slip ups. It is, after all, not kosher under state law for a teacher to campaign in favor of anything in a classroom whether it is a school bond or a candidate.

Mr. Fleming simply sharpened my interest in politics and government. The seed was planted long before I stepped foot into his classroom. And he honestly didn’t influence my politics except to further encourage me to delve into it more.

There are a lot of reasons to oppose the nonsense such as what was once proposed by former State Sen. John Vasconcellos. The Santa Clara Democrat unsuccessfully pushed legislation to give 14- and 15-year-olds quarter votes and their 16- and 17-year-old counterparts half votes in California elections. It would have injected a large class of voters into the system who have extremely limited political exposure at an impressionable age whose lives essentially center around one major outside influence - public education.
Not being able to vote didn’t cause me irreparable damage as a 14-year-old or lessen my rights as a 16-year-old.

In 1972, the first election that 18-year-olds had a right to vote in, then Lincoln High student body president-elect Ken Michaelsen asked me to serve as his campaign manager for his write-in candidacy for the Western Placer Unified School District board.

Ken turned 18 two days before he could submit the final write-in candidate papers for the June election. I was 16.

The campaign literature we drafted and distributed made a big impression. It wasn’t exactly pro-district on a school bond issue that was being pursued on the same ballot. We were hauled into then Principal Bob Gilmore’s office in mid-May where then-Superintendent Orrin Hoffman made it clear if Ken didn’t drop out he wouldn’t be playing football in the fall.

Ken didn’t budge. He stayed in the race and managed 66 write-in votes. And he still played football for the Lincoln Zebras in the fall.

As for me, two years later and after graduating from Lincoln High, I ran as an 18-year-old candidate on the ballot. There were four other candidates- including a long-term incumbent - running for the same Area 3 seat I was on the Western Placer Unified School District board.

I put together a brochure with detailed analysis of projections the superintendent had made in the school bond election I could not vote in as a 16-year-old to illustrate that his assumptions the district could incur the entire debt needed to build a new high school campus in its entirety was patently misleading. Western Placer was a high tax, low wealth district that had inadequate bonding capacity.

I paid for the brochure myself – and campaign newspaper ads in the Lincoln News Messenger – out of $700 in savings I earned as a sports stringer for The Press-Tribune. I also added the fact I thought it was wrong - and probably illegal - that the superintendent had several business classes at Lincoln High stuff envelopes for the unsuccessful bond election two years previously.

To make a long story short, I pulled 762 votes. That was 300 more than the incumbent who came in second. I virtually gave the superintendent a heart attack with my election. He blamed me for killing the school bond at our first meeting as a trustee-elect. Kind of impressive since I was 16 at the time I managed Ken’s campaign. It was credit that I doubted I deserved. Yet in the mind of the superintendent, I had somehow played political hell with the bond election as a 16-year-old.

My point? A vote isn’t a cure-all for giving teens a say in how their governments operate. There are many ways a 16-year-old can impact the course of political events in his or her community and do so without yet being able to legally exercise the right to vote.
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