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San Francisco could soon become the first major American city to lower its voting age to 16. A local ballot measure under consideration this November would allow 16- and 17-year-old residents to participate in citywide elections. The voting age for state and federal elections would remain 18.
If the measure is passed, it would mark a major step in a growing movement to extend voting rights to younger Americans. In 2013 the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, Md., became the first city in the country to lower its voting age to 16 for local elections. A handful of other small cities in Maryland have since followed suit. Voters in Berkeley, Calif., passed a measure in 2016 allowing 16-year-olds to participate in school board elections.
The changes aren’t limited to local races. More than a third of states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 by the general election. The issue has also received some attention at the federal level. A failed amendment to lower the national voting age in federal elections to 16 received support last year from more than 100 Democrats in the House of Representatives, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Several candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, including Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, said they were “open to” the idea.
The U.S. has lowered its voting age once before. The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, changed the minimum voting age in the country from 21 to 18 after a period of intense criticism fueled by the fact that 18-year-olds were old enough to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War but not to vote.
Why there’s debate
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue that 16-year-olds are too immature and uninformed to make sound decisions at the ballot box. When young people turn 18, they are considered adults in the eyes of the law. It only makes sense that voting should come at the same time, they argue. Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 vote at a much lower rate than older groups. Expanding the vote to 16-year-olds would only make civic disengagement worse, some say.
There is also a belief that teenage brains haven’t developed enough to promote rational decision making, which would leave 16-year-old voters susceptible to voting based on emotion or being influenced by pressure from their peers or parents. Others say the proponents of lowering the voting age are motivated by pure politics, since the new voters would likely overwhelmingly support Democrats.
Supporters of allowing 16-year-olds to vote say they are just as capable of making reasoned choices as older Americans and any claims that they might be irrational or poorly informed could also apply to the broader voting public. Keeping the voting age at 18 leaves younger Americans without a voice in issues that will affect them for the rest of their lives, particularly climate change.
A large body of research shows that voting is habitual, meaning once someone starts voting they are likely to participate in future elections. Turning 18 often comes around the time of major life changes — moving away from home, starting college, joining the workforce — that can make it harder to become politically engaged. Establishing voting patterns during the relative stability of the high school years could help young people become lifelong voters, proponents say.
Even if public opinion shifted in favor of lowering the voting age to 16, the process of establishing that standard nationally would be complex. A nationwide change to the minimum voting age for all elections would likely require a constitutional amendment, which seems far-fetched in the current political climate. For this reason, most activists have focused on changing voting standards at the local level.
Allowing 16-year-olds to vote would improve democracy for everyone
“The thing is, we don't really have a good reason not to allow 16-year-olds to vote. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite — that enfranchising 16-year-olds would be good for them and good for our democracy.” — Nancy Deutsch, Newsweek
If young people don’t have the right to vote, Issues that affect them get ignored
“When young people’s participation lags badly, issues important to them — school safety, student loans and climate change, among others — receive short shrift in the public discourse. A vicious cycle of disengagement ensues: Politicians don’t bother to speak about the issues that matter to young people, so young people don’t vote.” — Michael McDonald, Los Angeles Times
It’s much easier to establish voting patterns before the age of 18
“Voting is habit forming and it increases a voter’s likelihood to participate in future elections, which underscores the importance of having as stable an environment as possible for the youngest voters. ...The transitions that often accompany turning 18, such as graduating from high school, reaching the age of majority, starting college, and possibly living away from home for the first time, [are] factors that can actually make it more difficult for young people to vote.” — Lauren Young, Teen Vogue
Many older voters are just as uninformed and irrational as 16-year-olds would be
“Another objection is that young people are not yet mentally competent. … Implicit in this argument is the assumption that young people, because they are immature, are too uninformed to vote. But most voters are very uninformed, and some of them are quite foolish.” — Noah Berlatsky, CNN
Teenagers are mature enough to vote rationally
“Psychological studies seem to support the premise that teens of this age have the capacity to mull over the issues and scrutinize candidates on the way to making a decision. And they perform those functions as well as 20, 40, or 60 year-olds.” — James A. Anderson, Next City
Sixteen-year-olds are treated as adults in a lot of important ways
“In most states, 16-year-olds have the right to drive. They can get married, join a trade union, leave school and work full-time, pay income taxes, earn a minimum wage, leave home without their parents’ consent, pilot a glider, captain a boat, be a lifeguard, consent to medical treatment, get a passport, and take college prep exams that most adults would perform poorly on. … [But] they don’t have a say in who runs their communities and country.” — Karen Dolan and Theo Wuest, BuzzFeed
Young people are more informed and educated at 18
“Keeping the voting age at 18 is not a slap at 16-year-olds. It is recognition that an informed electorate is the best kind. Let’s keep the age where it is, and use those two years to give teens the tools for a lifetime of not just voting, but doing so as well-prepared participants who are ready for the task.” — Editorial, MassLive
Voting rights should be granted at the age when people become full citizens
“Though the voting age may be an arbitrary legal standard, it takes into account the completion of a high school education, the full opportunity to be versed in government, legal independence, and coming into one’s complete rights as a U.S. citizen.” — Ilona van der Linden, San Diego Union-Tribune
Teenage brains haven’t matured enough to make sound voting choices
“Teen brains are still developing, and lack full adult capabilities for long-term planning and thoughtful decision-making. That is why society rightly places limits on the rights of teenagers to consume dangerous drugs, drive, gamble and take part in other risky activities.” — Editorial, Boston Herald
Sixteen-year-olds aren’t civically engaged enough to vote
“At 16, most kids have little awareness of politics, civics, or American history, and they have little life experience to inform their decisions. Although a small percentage may work or even contribute to household expenses, few hold full-time jobs or fully care for themselves. Most don’t even pay for their own cellphones — let alone groceries, rent, utility bills, or property taxes. Simply put, they don’t have enough skin in the game.” — Jennifer C. Braceras, Boston Globe
Lowering the voting age would be a political power grab for Democrats
“Some liberals want the age dropped for an obvious reason: The kids will vote D., because they are passionately engaged about Things and Stuff.” — James Lileks, National Review
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