Voices of Youth: Michigan teens advocate for driver's license access, youth voting rights

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, youth writer Ela Khasnabis Upton interviews two young people leading change in the future of Michigan politics. 

Editor's note: The author is an intern for Michigan Rep. Jimmie Wilson, who is interviewed in this story.

Think about some of the most highly contested issues of our time: access to gender-affirming care, climate change, school shootings, and book bans in schools, to name a few. A common factor among these issues is that they all significantly influence the way young people live their lives. However, youth don’t have enough say in politics. 

Over the past year, there have been many conversations in the Michigan legislature around laws that impact youth. Young people like Kaylee Razo and Zara Mian have been fierce advocates on these laws even though they won't have the right to vote until they're 18. 

Their work has not gone unnoticed by adults in power. Legislators like Rep. Jimmie Wilson of the 32nd Michigan House District (mainly representing the Ypsilanti area) have been receptive to what young people have to say.

Kaylee Razo: Fighting to restore the right to safe driving for all 

The Drive SAFE bill package aims to give everyone access to a driver's license in Michigan, regardless of their citizenship status. It's a right that was previously in place, but was revoked in 2008. Wilson says the purpose of the legislation is simple: the state wants everyone driving safely on the roads, regardless of citizenship.

Razo is a 17-year-old immigration justice advocate and the chair of advocacy for the Michigan-based organization Strangers No Longer. Through this organization, she has been a fierce advocate for the Drive SAFE bill package. Razo has led school assemblies across Southeast Michigan, talked to legislators in Lansing, led letter drives, and created petitions in support of passing the package. 

Razo’s parents were undocumented when she was younger, which caused her family to drive in fear most of her life.

“We never went out, ever, when we were kids, because they were so afraid of driving," Razo says. "They didn't want to get pulled over. They didn't have insurance [and] their car wasn't registered because they didn't have the documentation to do that.”

A driver's license not only allows individuals the right to drive. It also provides access to a state ID. Razo says a driver's license is “a legal document you need for a lot of different things."

"It can hinder somebody's ability to integrate into society and just live a very normal, peaceful, calm life," she explains.

Laws to reinstate undocumented individuals' right to a driver's license have been proposed many times since 2008. However, each time advocates and supportive legislators have been met with resistance. Razo has talked to many legislators who don't want to support the bill, mainly because they fear not being re-elected. 

“They are afraid that if they do [support the bill], they are gonna lose votes. So everybody’s trying to be very neutral on it, but it never passes,” Razo explains. 

Wilson identifies a deeper current of xenophobia at play. 

“There's lots of issues around immigration. Some are around U.S. policy that needs to change. Some of that is around fear-mongering," Wilson explains. "Some people just don't want to see more immigrants in the country, and so that's kind of the biggest pushback." 

However, this bill does not have the power to change national immigration policy. It solely ensures that everyone has equal access to driving fear-free on Michigan roads. 

“But the opposition ... either don't really care for immigrants or they are so concerned with the next election coming up,” Wilson says.

Razo sees these barriers as even more of a reason to fight.

“I think what we really need right now is to keep reminding [politicians]," she says. "Because if not, they are just going to forget, and it's just going to pass again like in the previous years.”

Luckily, there are many things that constituents can do to ensure this does not happen again. 

Wilson says reaching out to your state legislators actually does make a difference. He suggests letting them know "I really care about this issue, I want to see this passed, [and] this is why I want to see this passed.”

Razo says people should look within their communities to see how the issue may impact those who live next to them, or sit next to them at school.

"Michigan is a really immigrant-dense community. There's a lot of undocumented immigrants here," Razo says. "This is something that affects you and the people around you." 

Zara Mian: Expanding youth voting access

Youth voter engagement has always been an area of passion for Washtenaw County Youth Commissioner Zara Mian, age 16.
“Voting is obviously the perfect vehicle to express how citizens want to see policy changed," she says.

Recently, Mian has been leading efforts to educate young people about changes to voting laws in Michigan, specifically the law that lowers the voting pre-registration age to 16

This bill was introduced by state Rep. Betsy Coffia of Traverse City. It’s part of a bill package that reinforces the rights protected under Proposition 2, which passed in 2022 and guarantees access to fair and accessible elections to everyone in Michigan. 

Lowering the pre-registration age makes registering to vote more convenient for youth. 

“Now when you go to officially get your license at the Secretary of State's office, one thing that you can do is also register to vote and they'll help you take care of that,” Mian says. 

Wilson adds that now youth “don't have to worry about a 30-day waiting period before the election." This way, youth are “ready and motivated to vote right away as soon as they're 18,” he says. 

The hope is that this law will increase the number of voters registered at 18, which has the potential to significantly change Michigan politics. 
Doug CoombeZara Mian.
“Historically, the older you get, the more likely you are to be voting,” Wilson says.

Wilson shares another plus: when more young people are involved in politics, this changes the mindset of politicians, too. 

“Hopefully, this will also make [politicians] also speak to the younger voters as well, and not just talk to the older voters,” he says.

While this law does not lower the voting age, there have been efforts to do so in the past.  A bill titled Vote Sixteen sought to allow 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections. Mian notes that former state Rep. Yousef Rabhi “was really big on" lowering the voting age for these elections, and Michigan Sen. Jeff Irwin worked to renew those efforts. Unfortunately, Mian says, that bill "kind of just stalled."

However, Mian hopes this new law lowering the age for pre-registration “is kind of the next step and push for lowering the voting age.” 

“Hopefully this shows people in power that youth are wanting to vote and they are engaged in civic processes," she says. "Hopefully this puts momentum and pressure on them to continue to advocate for youth voting rights."

For youth who feel discouraged from engaging in political activism, Razo shares some advice. 

“I think a big thing that stops a lot of youth is they think what they’re doing isn't going to make an impact," she says. “Maybe it's going to be the next generation that's gonna get the bill passed, but you're setting a foundation and chipping into the change.”

Ela Khasnabis Upton is the current chair of the Washtenaw County Youth Commission and intern for state Rep. Jimmie Wilson. She lives in Ypsilanti. 

Concentrate staffer Jaishree Drepaul served as Ela's mentor for this story.

Photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.