As scores of young people crowded into a hearing room in the Wilson Building on Wednesday, D.C. Council members saw the future of D.C. politics.
“There are multiple future council members and a future mayor in this room,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
But before they run for office, Allen wants to make them voters.
A bill he introduced in April would do just that, lowering the voting age to 16.
If passed, the bill would enfranchise up to 10,600 16- and 17-year-olds, according to Census Bureau data.
It would also be historic.
The nation’s capital would become the first municipality in the country to allow minors to vote for president, and the biggest city to let them vote in local races.
In recent years, three nearby Maryland communities — Takoma Park, Hyattsville and Greenbelt — along with Berkeley, Calif. — have lowered the voting age in their municipal elections to 16. There are similar campaigns underway in cities as large as San Francisco and towns as small as Ashfield, Mass.
Lowering the voting age would promote civic participation, increase turnout and give a voice to a population that is able to drive and pay taxes, activists say.
If any city government can sympathize with those who don’t feel represented, it’s the District, said Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large).
“D.C. knows what it feels like to be impacted but not represented,” he said.
This point resonated with many students, academics, politicians and advocates who testified in favor of the legislation.
“They spend our tax dollars, yet we can’t even vote,” said Alik Schier, a 16-year old high school student with Vote16DC, an organization that has championed the bill.
Year after year, politicians run on education issues, yet students affected by those policies cannot vote, Schier said.
“We know what works in our school and what doesn’t,” the Woodrow Wilson High School student said.
The hearing came a week after the District’s primary elections, where voter turnout was the lowest in a mayoral primary in three decades.
“Voter turnout was, frankly, abysmal,” Allen said, referring to the city’s June 19 primary. Young voters would “set a good example for the adults in their lives,” he added.
Recent research has found a “trickle up” effect — when young people vote, their parents are more likely to do the same.
Tim Male, a former Takoma Park City Council member, has heard all the objections against extending the vote to 16-year-olds, ranging from concerns that teens would vote in lockstep with their parents or that they wouldn’t vote at all, to complaints about the way they dress.
But in places where the voting age has been lowered, turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds has been as much as four times greater than turnout of voters older than 18.
“It’s really hard to think of a downside,” Male testified.
The city’s youngest voters — those between the ages of 18 and 24 — had a lower than average turnout rate for the 2016 general election. That year, nearly 49 percent of registered 18-24-year-olds voted — 15 percent less than the overall turnout rate.
This is the second time Allen has introduced legislation to lower the voting age; an effort in 2015 went nowhere.
But in 2018, on the heels of the March for Our Lives and the waves of youth activism that followed the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Allen thinks the timing is right. The teenagers from the school, who have been leading a national gun control effort, have undercut those who think young people are not mature enough to vote.
“I think that argument has been completely eviscerated in the past several months,” Allen said.
It wouldn’t be the first time young people have campaigned for a lower voting age.
During World War II, the voting age was 21 across the country. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the age for draft eligibility to 18 years old, activists declared they were “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”
But it wasn’t until the Vietnam War, when young protesters made the same argument, that Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18.
Students who testified said lowering the voting age was also a matter of social justice, as issues such as gentrification and criminal justice disproportionately affect people of color.
“I’ve seen friends and family pushed out of their neighborhoods due to gentrification,” said QueSton Bell, a student and Ward 5 resident, who said he and his friends talk about politics but often feel the government doesn’t care about them.
“Without the ability to vote, our voices our muted,” Bell said.
A majority of the 13-member council supports the legislation. David Grosso (I-At Large), one of seven sponsors, said he’s planning to let young people lead one of his town halls this summer. Hopefully, the bill will spur more young residents to run for office, Grosso said.
“I certainly wouldn’t mind having a 16- or 17-year-old on the council,” he said. At that, the students in the room cheered.