Approval of the 26th Amendment opened the ballot box to millions of Americans ages 18 to 20. But efforts to expand the voting rolls didn’t stop there. And recently they have picked up steam. Since 2018, lawmakers in nearly a dozen states and the U.S. Congress have proposed measures that would lower the voting age to 16 for federal, state and/or local elections.
The District of Columbia and 18 states, including Virginia and Maryland, allow 17-year-old citizens to vote in primary and special elections if they will turn 18 before the general election. California has a similar proposal on its ballot this week, while San Francisco could become the first major U.S. city to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. Takoma Park, Maryland, was the first city, acting in 2013. Nearby Hyattsville, Greenbelt and Riverdale Park soon followed.
Some adults argue that those younger than 18 lack the maturity and life experience for voting. [See box below.] Not surprisingly, young activists disagree.
“We already are given so many responsibilities,” said Ixchel Arista, 15, a youth leader with Oakland Kids First in
California. “We have jobs. We pay taxes. And some of us take care of our siblings.”
A measure to allow teens 16 and 17 to vote in school board elections is on Oakland’s 2020 ballot.
Dakota Pippins, who’s 13 and a member of the Takoma Park Youth Council, said he and his peers are “aware of how our government shapes the world” and want their voices to be heard and valued. Results from the first city elections to include younger voters showed them voting at a higher rate than older voters, although registration was low overall.
Tyler Okeke, 19, is a youth organizer with the nonprofit group Power California and a student at the University of Chicago. He said 16 is the perfect age to start a lifelong voting habit, because that’s when students are studying U.S. history and government and are ready “to start shaping our democracy.” By age 18 or 19, he said, they’re getting jobs or heading to college and have other things on their minds.
Okeke and other activists mention gun violence, climate change and racial justice as issues very important to young people.
“A lot of what we’re dealing with is what the future will look like,” said Asha Henry, 17, who heads the Takoma Park Youth Council. “We’re the ones who will have to deal with all the aftereffects of climate change and other issues 30 or 40 years down the line.”
After researching the candidates and issues, Henry voted for the first time two weeks ago in her city’s election. “It felt good,” she said.
Should people ages 16 and 17 be able to vote in all elections?
Arguments for and against
No, because . . .
●They lack the maturity, knowledge and experience to make informed decisions.
●They are easily influenced by their parents, teachers and friends.
●They cannot legally buy tobacco products or alcohol. Is voting less important?
Yes, because . . .
●They have the same civic knowledge and political interests and skills as older voters.
●Many serious issues are long-term, so younger voters should have a role in addressing them.
●Voting at 16 or 17 increases election turnout and encourages a lifelong habit vital to a healthy democracy. Research in Denmark has found that when young people vote, their parents are more likely to vote. It also showed that the longer a young person has to wait to be eligible to vote, the less likely they are to cast their ballot. So it’s good to start early.