November 11, 2013

For the first time since the election age was lowered to 16 for local elections in Takoma Park, these new voters had an opportunity to vote last Tuesday. And guess what? They showed up (via Kevin Collins):

Turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds in Tuesday’s election for mayor and Council members was four times higher than overall turnout, according to Jessie Carpenter, Takoma Park’s City Clerk. The election was the first time in history that the franchise had been extended to residents under the age of 18. Of the 134 16- and 17-year-olds that registered to vote on Tuesday, 59 actually cast ballots, a turnout of 44 percent. For the overall voting populace of 11,300, though, turnout was significantly lower, only reaching 11 percent.

Of course, it’s impossible to extrapolate from a first-ever election to how things will work normally in Takoma Park, let alone to how things would go if allowing younger teens to vote was expanded to more places and more elections. Still, it’s consistent with one of the theories for why teen vote is a good idea. People have speculated that allowing kids to begin voting while they are in high school will get them in the habit much better than beginning voting later, when many young adults are in college or about to be there and, in many cases, have far looser ties to the communities where they live. For that to be true, however, it would be necessary for high school kids to be interested in voting in the first place — otherwise they’re just forming the habit of not voting even earlier! Again: One election certainly doesn’t prove anything about this, but it’s nice to see positive results.

The next step would be for at least one state to open up voting for all offices to high school students. There’s really no strong argument against it; yes, many 16-year-olds (or even 15- and 14-year-olds) will be relatively ignorant voters, but lots of 20-year-old and 40-year-old and 80-year-old voters pay little attention to public affairs. Yes, they’ll be influenced by family members — exactly how voters of all ages are influenced by family members.

What’s missing from stories about these voters is the plain fact that high school students in other jurisdictions worked hard to elect the candidates that they supported, by going door-to-door, by working the phone lines or social media, and by volunteering at candidate events. All of which is perfectly legal and accepted without comment. And yet voting, which requires a lot less knowledge, is restricted.

The truth is that if we want citizens to vote — and, even better, go beyond that to actively engage in democracy and government — then it makes lots of sense to get them started early. Who wants to follow Takoma Park? It’s a great way to spread democracy.