On Tuesday, this California city decides if 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote. It’s a good question—maybe even the best one we’ve had—and you can probably guess what happens.
In May, voters in Daly City, a wealthy bedroom community in northern California, overwhelmingly passed an ordinance that would allow 16-year-olds to vote. The City Council voted unanimously after two days of debate. Then the City Council decided to make the vote a legal referendum—meaning it could be changed by a 2-1 majority—instead of an ordinance.
Now, the city’s attorneys are asking the California Superior Court to rule that the referendum is not a legal “election,” which is allowed under California law. This would be a big deal, because a legal referendum allows cities to make changes to their election laws without the usual rules and requirements. Most cities, for instance, have to allow a third political party to nominate candidates on the ballot.
And a legal referendum could be used, or abused, to change a vote on the grounds that the vote is too close to the deadline, or because the City Council was motivated by politics. (And if there are any other factors, there’s a good chance the court will decide they’re illegitimate. And that’s the last line of defense against a mass-scale election-timing scheme.)
It’s certainly an odd way to treat a public body. But it illustrates a huge problem for American democracy: The lines between the political and the legal are frequently blurred.
On Tuesday, some of the largest US cities will decide if they will allow 16-year-olds to vote. And some of them have already passed measures that would change that vote—to change it.
That’s partly to be expected. America’s cities have been changing forever. But it’s also the result of a pattern: In American elections, we have two models of democracy: The first is the direct democracy of a system where a city council passes a vote, then a citizens’ jury approves it; the more authoritarian option is where local governments make decisions on their own, without input or vote from the public. In either case, it’s not clear who