EDITOR’S NOTE: Please join Next City for a related webinar on Wednesday, July 22, “How to Lower the Voting Age to 16,” with guest Brandon Klugman, Vote16USA Campaign Manager at Generation Citizen. The webinar is pay what you wish to register.
Memo to the U.S. Electorate: Ready or not, it’s time to make room.
A legion of 16- and 17-year-olds vies for a place at your nearby polling station. In several cities around the country, they’re already voting in local elections. A wealth of data supports the wisdom of enfranchising young voters — turnout is high in this age group, and neuroscience suggests their brains are primed for calculated decision-making. Countries that have implemented age-16 voting before now have found that cultivating good civic behaviors early leads to long-term engagement, both for young voters and for those around them.
These young voters might also hold the remedy to ailments that beset U.S. democracy, among them disillusionment, apathy, partisanship, and cynical frustration with government. What’s more, lowering the voting age may be the key to a smoother transition, as U.S. demographics shift and society becomes both older and more diverse at a time when we face a future when hot-button issues such as climate change, racial justice and economic inequality dominate civic life and debate. Additionally, enfranchising young votes gives them a direct sense of how they can participate in the system; in fact, the track record so far shows that 16- and 17-year-olds take the right to vote seriously and are willing to work to get it.
Already, the age-16 suffrage movement has support in national circles, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to members of Congress, newspaper editorial boards and local officials. Still, It remains very much a grassroots campaign aiming to change voting laws city by city and town by town with the support of activist teen groups and national nonprofits such as Generation Citizen and the National Youth Rights Association. The young would-be voters who have joined the cause are persistent, resourceful, and patient as they work to shake up the system from within. Obstacles including bureaucratic labyrinths, an unprecedented pandemic, and even trenchant partisanship have slowed them, but not for long.
Take Caleb Deberry. A 17-year-old high school senior from Chicago, Deberry heads an Illinois chapter of Vote16USA, a nationwide advocacy initiative organized by Generation Citizen that promotes age-16 suffrage across the country. Deberry’s group faces steep trekking in its effort to lower the age requirement for voting in Chicago, and ultimately the rest of Illinois. State law prohibits the city from making changes to its charter — either by referendum or by city council vote — that would make lowering the voting age possible.
Working from his family’s apartment in the North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park, Deberry spends on average 20 hours a week on a variety of tasks. He regularly works the phones to recruit members for chapters downstate in Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, and Carbondale. He has spoken with elected officials such as Representative Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Representative Kelly Cassidy and the policy advisor to Representative Ayanna Pressley. (In 2019, Pressley introduced a measure in the House that would have lowered the federal voting age to 16.) Deberry has met with former Illinois governor Pat Quinn to elicit his support, and participated in a forum in September 2019 where high school students questioned Democratic Party presidential candidates.
Deberry credits his poise and enthusiasm to working with his mother, Ebony, an organizer with a branch of the group People’s Action, a political group that has stumped for housing, economic justice, environmental issues, and more equitable distribution of Chicago education funding. During a phone interview with Deberry, in fact, his mom can be heard working the phones in the background.
“She always took me to meetings when I was 11 or 12,” he says. “I was always interested in going, taking notes, canvassing, or helping at the phone bank.” Deberry says he, too, is passionate about the same causes and can now draw from his experience in public speaking and even setting budgets that he learned alongside his mother.
The ideal Deberry envisions is more than wishful thinking. Age-16 suffrage has gained grassroots momentum in recent years, and as the country has witnessed with the ongoing racial justice marches of 2020. The deep engagement of young people persists in spite of the social distancing and challenges to community organizing that the pandemic has demanded.
“In the past three or four years, we’ve seen a groundswell in the level of attention the issue is getting,” says Brandon Klugman, campaign manager for Vote16USA. “That goes along with an increase in youth activism among 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who are making clear that they not only have a stake in politics, but that they’re equally reading, willing and able to take part in choosing government officials.”
At the same time, there’s a sense that the teens who have gravitated to the cause feel they have to earn the privilege of voting and to prove to older voters that they, too, deserve a turn at the ballot box. “Within the movement, there’s the feeling that we have to persuade the public with a positive view of young people’s capacity and worth,” says Brian Conner, the president of the National Youth Rights Association, another group that pushes for age-16 voting eligibility.
In the History of Voting, Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number
Although white males spent the first 150 years of this country’s history endeavoring to limit voting based on land ownership, sex and race, a minimum age for casting a ballot did not emerge as a point of contention until nearly the mid-20th century. The voting age had been set at 21 for reasons of convenience, to keep to a precedent originally set by British law during the colonial era, says University of Kentucky law professor Joseph Douglas. In England, 21 had been the age of majority since the time of Chivalry; at that age young men became eligible for their first suit of armor and could, as a result, qualify for knighthood.
Talk of lowering the voting age in the U.S. began around the time of the Second World War, when, in 1942, the federal government lowered the draft age from 21 to 18 to build up the armed services at a time of escalating global conflict. After the war, Kentucky and Georgia changed the voting age for their state elections to 18.
The movement picked up real steam in the 1960s, as increasing numbers of young people protested the Vietnam War. Citizens who were old enough to risk their lives on the battlefield, the argument went, deserved a say in how the government was run. The slogan “Old Enough to Die, Old Enough to Vote” became a popular rallying cry. By March 1971, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18 and sent the amendment to the states for ratification. Just 100 days later, the required three-fourths of all states ratified the amendment, and in July 1971, vote-18 became the 26th Amendment to the Constitution.
Today’s age-16 suffrage movement has interesting parallels with the successful 26th Amendment campaign. Many of the original arguments against allowing 18-year-olds to vote — that they’re too immature, they don’t understand the issues — are wielded today to stymie efforts to lower the voting age further.
It’s important to note that the 26th Amendment does not expressly prohibit states or local governments from setting a lower voting age. In fact, its main proviso states, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
So why grant 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote? Let’s run down the reasons.
Because They Can Work, Drive, and Pay Taxes Like Adults
Any argument in favor of lowering the voting age starts with the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds are already seen as adults in several official ways. Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia let teens pre-register to vote at 16, while an additional nine states have opened pre-registration to 17-year-olds. By age 16, teens have the right to drive in every state of the union and can secure a license everywhere but in New Jersey, where they must wait until 17.
Then there’s the matter of taxation without direct representation for the sizable number of 16- and 17-year-olds who work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 229,000 youths between the ages of 16 and 17 work full-time, and another 1.46 million work part-time. Minors now must file tax returns if they earn more than the standard deduction.
Within the criminal justice system, the law frequently treats mid-teens as adults, too. The legal age of sexual consent is 16 in 31 states, and age 17 in another six states. And according to the Juvenile Law Center, every year 250,000 youth are tried and sentenced as adults in the U.S.
Because Young Brains Are Optimized to Make Voting Decisions
For those who question whether 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to assume the responsibility of casting a ballot, 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.
The basis lies in cognitive studies that examine our abilities to gather and process information depending on our environment and prevailing factors. So far, results show that 16-year-olds have fully formed peak abilities of “cold cognition” — the power to reach deliberate, measured decisions in which humans take time to weigh information. In other words, the very skills required to decide on a candidate and cast a vote. The argument is that the cognitive powers required in knowing when and where to vote, and taking the time to read up on issues and learn about candidates, falls well within the skills that 16- and 17-year-olds have developed.
Arguably, teens get a bad rap for more impetuous thinking, or “hot cognition” skills, that shape impulsive, spur-of-the-moment decision-making under pressure. Those abilities don’t fully mature on average until age 21. And while that’s a drawback during emotional or stressful times, this type of thinking doesn’t factor into ballot-box choices.
Research backs the fact that mid-teens can think over their preferences, analyze self-interest, and ultimately come to sensible conclusions about voting. A 2012 study in Austria, where 16- and 17-year-olds have had the vote since 2007, found that that voters in this age group were just as likely to be able to describe their ideological leanings and to select candidates that reflected those inclinations as older voters. What’s more, surveys there have shown a marked increase in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who described themselves as interested or very interested in politics; those numbers doubled from 31 percent in 2004 to 62 percent in 2008.
Because Voter Turnout Is Higher For This Age Group
Beyond Austria, a handful of other democracies around the globe have already lowered the voting age to 16 over the last three decades. In Brazil and Argentina, 16-year-olds can choose to vote in elections at all levels, while everyone from 18 to 70 is required to do so. Several states in Germany have permitted 16-year-olds to vote in local elections since the 1990s. The Scottish parliament, meanwhile, unanimously decided to lower the region’s voting age to 16 on the eve of its 2014 independence referendum. Seventeen year-olds can vote in Greece and participate in local elections in Israel. Croatia, Ecuador, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia allow 16-year-olds to cast ballots in elections at various levels, although in some places enfranchisement is conditional on being married or employed.
Austria was the first European Union nation to set a voting age of 16 for most of its sovereign elections, and as such, has more than 10 years of election data to analyze. Research from 2014 shows that, in Vienna specifically, turnout for 16- and 17-year-old first-time voters was 64 percent, significantly higher than the 56 percent turnout for 18- to 20-year-old first-time voters.
More encouraging data comes from Takoma Park, one of four Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., to open voting to 16-year-olds. A 2013 city council vote made Takoma Park the first U.S. city to lower the voting age. Credit goes to Timothy Male and his council colleagues. He says constituents had asked him to work up an activity to interest teens on voting, civic responsibility, and the workings of local government. The idea was to boost participation in local elections, where turnout figures had been mired in the teens for a decade, crossing the 20 percent mark just once. The low figures were something of an embarrassment given Takoma’s proximity to the capitol and the fact that so many residents worked in government.
Male says he took up a Google search to brainstorm and landed immediately on Scotland and its decision to open voting to 16-year-olds in 2011. He and a colleague researched the issue and a similar move in Vienna during the naughts. The research led to a charter amendment Male proposed to the council in 2013, which won approval. Maryland’s government allows localities the leeway to make voting decisions autonomously; once Takoma Park approved age-16 voting, nearby Hyattsville quickly followed suit.
Targeting the city council for approval seemed an expedient way for Male to make the change at the time, but Male’s tactic has become something of a blueprint for age-16 suffrage proponents. Proposals to win by referendum have stalled a number of times across the country, often owing to the reluctance of a wide swath of older voters to expand the rolls to teens. Male says targeting city councils give teens time to prove their worthiness, by boosting turnout and getting involved in council or school board meetings.
And young Takoma Park voters have proven themselves. In the years following the amendment, 16- and 17-year-olds participated in municipal elections in numbers that far surpassed overall turnout, although the numbers themselves were less than overwhelming. In 2013, 44 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds voted, compared to 10 percent of overall registered voters. In 2015, 45 percent of the teens cast a vote, compared to 21 percent overall.