The March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24, when high school students rallied against gun violence, demonstrated that teenage citizens have voices that deserve to be heard and needs that deserve to be addressed by our leaders. In order for teenagers to have a fighting chance at winning, however, they need votes.
Several nations, including Austria, Argentina, and Brazil, already have 16-year-olds voting, and the United States is slowly moving in that direction, with one city at a time implementing a voting age of 16.
While progress is slow, the benefits are clear. Teenagers, not yet distracted by the stresses of college or full-time work, have the time and have supportive adults around to help them navigate the complexities of voter registration. By starting their voting lives at a time when it’s easy, youth begin a habit of voting instead of a habit of staying home.
It should be no surprise, then, that the voter-suppression crowd hates the #Vote16 movement.
I helped organize campaigns that lowered the voting age to 16 in three Maryland cities, and in every case, the same arguments were used against us.
Kids will just vote the same way their parents do, claim parents who overestimate their influence. But ScotCen Social Research’s 2013 study of 16-year-old voters in Scotland found they were no more influenced by their parents than older voters were.
Teenagers would just vote for celebrities, claim others. But exit polls show it was voters over 40 who elected a reality TV star as president and an action movie star as governor of California. In both elections, the youngest voters voted for more qualified candidates.
Kids’ brains aren’t fully developed yet, claim people who get their science news from Facebook. But actual scientists know better. As Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, wrote, “the skills necessary to make informed decisions are firmly in place by 16. By that age, adolescents can gather and process information, weigh pros and cons, reason logically with facts, and take time before making a decision. Teenagers may sometimes make bad choices, but statistically speaking, they do not make them any more often than adults do.”
Of all the arguments made against #Vote16, the most infuriating may be this: They don’t want to vote. Kids are apathetic.
For me, this one is personal. I taught social studies. And in every classroom, I encountered the same barrier. “What difference does it make if we understand how government works? We can’t even vote!” students would tell me.
When teenagers hear about the mere possibility of being included in elections, the bitterness melts.
Many students saw no point in developing an informed opinion when no decision-maker was asking for theirs. They saw no point in learning from history when they were barred from even a small say in America’s path forward.
Excluded from America’s democracy, too many teenagers respond with sour grapes, telling themselves bitterly that democracy is just a word. They develop the habits that look from a distance like apathy, habits that can linger for years. And then adults use that disconnection as the reason to keep youth excluded.
It’s amazing, though, how easily this cycle can be broken. When teenagers hear about the mere possibility of being included in elections—even just local elections—the bitterness melts, and hopeful youth emerge from the shadows in droves.
In 2013, a city council member in Takoma Park, Maryland, proposed his city lowering its voting age to 16. No other U.S. city had done this, and other council members dismissed the idea. Then local high school students heard about the proposal. On the night the matter was up for discussion, numerous students sacrificed late hours on a school night to ask their city council for a small voice in local elections. Councilmember Tim Male noted that 5 percent of the city’s entire population aged 16–17 showed up to the meeting. “If we had 5 percent turnout of this entire community at a city council meeting, we’d have 600–800 people. There are 200 chairs in this room. That would never happen.”
Impressed by these youth, the city council passed the proposal, and youth brought their enthusiasm into the voting booth. In the first local election after the change, the turnout rate for voters younger than 18 was four times that of older voters.
But that’s Takoma Park, an affluent suburb of Washington where many parents are among America’s policy leaders. Their kids grow up informed and engaged. Surely, critics said, that couldn’t happen in a more typical city.
A lower voting age rejuvenates democracy across generations.
The next campaign arose in working-class Hyattsville. This time, teenagers turned out in such numbers that the council chambers had standing room only. The architects had never planned for a Hyattsville city council meeting to draw such attendance, but on this freezing cold night, teenagers had walked, carpooled, or taken public transit to plead for the right to take part in the same local elections most adults blow off.
Among them was Juwan Blocker, who got a ride from an English teacher. And after he saw that his voice really mattered when his city lowered its voting age to include him, Blocker’s engagement grew, and he continued taking part as he became an adult.
“I got involved in running for the school board twice and got elected as a student member,” he says. “And now I’m here at the age of 20 running for a full term on the board of education. So it definitely impacted me and others.”
That shouldn’t be too surprising. A study published in the Journal of Youth Studies found that “political interest of 16- and 17-year-olds was higher after lowering the voting age.”
Two years after Takoma Park lowered its voting age, Male emailed me and told me how young people’s involvement has become everyday.
“[It’s now] normal for older people to stand in line with younger people to vote,” he said. “Normal for 16- to 17-year-olds to be at campaign events and asking questions of candidates. Normal to see 16- to 17-year-olds at council meetings. And best of all, as an elected representative, it has become normal for me to get requests from 16- to 17-year-olds—for information or representation or services that the city provides.”
Blocker found his increased engagement even rubbed off on his parents. Before, he says, his parents were only occasional voters, but now they vote in every election. That too is unsurprising. Research from Denmark has shown that parents who live with voting children are more likely to vote than parents without voting-age children in their household. A lower voting age rejuvenates democracy across generations.