With the 2017 session of the Hawaii State Legislature underway, our elected officials would do well to consider the perspectives of Hawaii’s future voting generations if they intend to solve long-term issues affecting our state.

Although it is difficult for legislators to poll large numbers of citizens under 18 years old on every issue, the ballot question results of WeVoteHawaii’s 2016 Youth General Election provide a gauge of how youth in grades kindergarten through 12, statewide, view certain issues.

Formerly known as Kids Voting Hawaii, WeVoteHawaii is a nonprofit, nonpartisan all-volunteer organization that has implemented a simulated election for Hawaii’s students since 1996. WeVoteHawaii collaborates with charter, private, public, parochial and home schools throughout the state during every election cycle in an effort to foster civic awareness among students and encourage adult voter turnout.

Using the official candidates running for elected office at the local, state and national levels, the WeVoteHawaii online ballot gives students the opportunity to experience voting through ballots similar to those adults use in the locations where they live.

WeVoteHawaii also asked students several questions on issues affecting their campus environment and community. The results reflect the views of nearly 110,000 students who voted on the WVH online ballot in November.

5-year-old Luke Herring peeks above the polling booth with dad Kevin Herring from downtown at Central Middle School cafeteria during primary elections. 13 aug 2016
Some day kids like 5-year-old Luke Herring will be voting themselves rather than just accompanying their parents to the polls. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Agricultural Pesticides Buffer Zones Near Schools?

Although pesticides may be deemed necessary for agricultural protection and production, such substances could potentially harm youths in close proximity. A number of schools across the state are adjacent to agricultural lands, thereby making school campuses vulnerable to exposure and consequent contamination.

The WeVoteHawaii online ballot for middle and high school students, statewide, asked the question: “Where agricultural lands and fields are located near or next to schools, should there be a pesticide ‘buffer zone’ for the safety of students’ health?”

In response, 80.7 percent (50,198) of students voted in support of pesticide buffer zones near schools compared to 19.2 percent (11,935) students responding with “no.” These results strongly signal that students are aware of being affected by the substances used in agricultural production that permeate their campuses. Furthermore, students are indicating a need for safety measures and attention by legislators.

During the 2016 legislative session, Rep. Chris Lee introduced a measure that would have created a pilot program to protect five schools from inadvertent pesticide exposure caused by nearby farms. The bill was deferred in committee.

WeVoteHawaii collaborated with Rep. Lee on the buffer zone ballot question and the Waimanalo legislator plans to introduce the measure again based on the overwhelming support by Hawaii’s youth. Other legislators should consider supporting Rep. Lee’s measure that will help to create a safe learning and working environment in Hawaii’s public schools.

Delayed Starting Times For Schools?

Long traffic lines continue to affect everyone during the weekday commutes coming into and leaving Honolulu. To better understand how students regard this situation, the WeVoteHawaii ballot posed the question: “Should public schools be allowed to start at different times in the morning?”

Ironically, however, students likely did not express their opinions because of the burdensome traffic situation (most students do not drive), but rather because of a desire for more sleep in the mornings!

A majority of all grade levels supported a different start time for school. However, the support level for different starting times was significantly higher among teenagers. In grades K-4, 58.5 percent (24,046) believed that public schools should be allowed to begin classes at a different time in the morning, while 41.5 percent (17,061) were opposed to proposal.

For students in grades 5-8, 69.3 percent (27,202) said that schools should be allowed to start at a different time in the morning, while 30.7 percent (12,074) disagreed.

Among high school students, 81.2 percent (18,830) favored a different starting time, while only 18.8 percent (4,353) were against.

These results suggest a correlation between the age of a student and the desire for more sleep. With national studies consistently citing Hawaii as one of the most sleep-deprived states in the nation, one has to wonder just how much sleep a local student gets on a daily basis. According to the University of Michigan, children in school require 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night.

Different starting times may also reduce traffic during peak rush hours in certain areas, as adults will not have to deliver their youth by 8 o’clock each morning. If certain school districts had a later starting time, traffic flow in high density areas might see some relief during the peak rush hours in the morning.

More than 56 percent of the students answered “no” when asked if they would ride the rail once it’s built.

This is a possible approach to the reality that Honolulu is consistently ranked high among cities with the longest commute times in the nation.

Since Gov. David Ige and several notable education leaders have been advocating for more school level autonomy, giving the option for schools to choose their own starting times is one feasible way to empower more decision-making authority by individual campus communities.

Based on the students’ perspective, the Hawaii State Legislature should consider giving public schools the option to have different starting times as a possible solution to reduce peak traffic conditions, as well as help students to be ready to learn by having more sleep time.

What About Rail?

Oahu students in grades 9-12 faced an additional question related more specifically to transportation and the impending rail construction. Asked if they could see themselves eventually using the rail transit system in the future, 56.1 percent (9,392) of the students responding answered “no” while 43.9 percent (7,360) said “yes.”

This result may come as a surprise to observers who believe that Millennials and Generation Zer’s would be inclined to use the quickest mode of transportation that appears most convenient for them — in this case through rail transit. To better grasp this idea, greater youth feedback on this issue is needed.

The WeVoteHawaii ballot results serve to magnify one simple fact: it will be our future generations that use and maintain the rail transit system. With rail not expected to be fully completed until 2025, this poll, more than anything else, serves as a necessary reminder that decision-makers will need more input from young people regarding the future of Hawaii.

With the Hawaii State Legislature and Honolulu City and County officials currently assessing ways to fully fund the rail transit project this year, they need to consider this major investment decision against the backdrop of those who stand to be impacted by it the most – the youth!

Other Notable Ballot Question Results

WeVoteHawaii asked middle and high school students their opinions on whether students should be able to refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or when the National Anthem is played, as a form of protest. Over 60 percent (23,657) of middle school students voted “no” which is a strong contrast to over 55 percent of high schoolers who supported this specific method to express personal opposition to a required custom. This result reflects a major opinion difference among Millennials (middle school) and Generation Z (high school) students, whose age, maturity and independent thinking may evolve due to their different perspectives.

Students under the age of 18 cannot legally vote, they can register to vote at 16 and participate, at any age, in the legislative process.

Over 90 percent of elementary and middle school students indicated that they feel safe at school.

Eighty-six percent of high school students responded that they do have access to college level courses while still attending high school. Though not every high school in Hawaii permits their students to have dual enrollment with an accredited post-secondary institution, the WVH ballot results reflect the fact that Hawaii’s public school system is committed to supporting students who want to accelerate their learning at the college level while completing high school.

The ballot question results of WeVoteHawaii’s 2016 General Election provide a large sampling of youth that reflects the voice of our future generation.

Although students under the age of 18 cannot legally vote, they can register to vote at 16 and participate, at any age, in the legislative process by testifying at hearings and meeting with legislators.

The question remains to be seen at the end of this year’s legislative session whether Hawaii’s elected officials value youth perspectives and whether student opinions are acknowledged with legislative action.

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