A District lawmaker wants to lower the voting age to 16, inspired by the high-schoolers who are campaigning for gun control and filled D.C. streets last month in a massive protest that mesmerized the country.
It would make the nation’s capital the first municipality to allow minors to cast ballots in presidential contests and the first major city to allow them to vote in local races.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) on Tuesday will introduce legislation to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, hoping to channel youth activism to the ballot box.
In 2013, Takoma Park, Md., became the first U.S. city to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. Two nearby small towns, Greenbelt and Hyattsville, and Berkeley, Calif., have since joined.
Last month’s March for Our Lives rally for gun control and the D.C.-specific events show that young people deserve the right to help choose their leaders, Allen said.
He introduced similar legislation in late 2015, but it never came up for a hearing or vote. This time, he says the politics may be shifting.
“It’s pretty hard for anyone to watch the events of the last couple of months and not understand the pure power and maturity of incredibly young voices,” he said.
“They were powerful. They were thoughtful. They were leading,” Allen said. “I don’t see how anyone could hear any of those voices and think that person couldn’t make an informed decision like anyone else.”
He suggests 16 because it’s the age teenagers can drive, work legally and pay taxes.
Student activism was credited for lowering the voting age once before, in 1971, when Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution to allow people 18 and older to vote. Young protesters during the Vietnam War argued that it was unfair that young men who were being drafted were unable to vote for the leaders who were sending them into battle. Before the amendment, many states set the minimum voting age at 21. The amendment did not prevent states from setting the age lower than 18.
Advocates for lowering the voting age see a parallel with the teenagers who survived the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and who have emerged as national advocates for gun control and sparring partners for politicians.
“You can’t listen to these 16- and 17-years-olds and say they are not mature enough to participate,” said Scott Warren, chief executive of Generation Citizen, a nonprofit overseeing a campaign to lower the voting age. “We are hopeful that Washington, D.C., can be the first major city in the country to lower the voter age. That would help propel a nationwide movement.”
Allen chairs the D.C. Council committee that will consider the bill, ensuring a hearing. He has support from a majority of the council, including Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and David Grosso (I-At Large). On Tuesday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) also gave her backing, according to a spokeswoman.
Zion Kelly, a D.C. 17-year-old who spoke at March For Our Lives about losing his twin brother to gun violence, endorsed Allen’s bill on Twitter.
“There are a whole lot of challenges that young people face in this city,” said Nadia Mortiz, executive director of the Young Women’s Project, a nonprofit leading the D.C. coalition to support Allen’s bill. “Young people are part of that solution. They understand the problems, they experience the problems.”
“A lot of issues to people who are eligible to vote now are issues that affect 16- and 17-year-olds,” said Alik Schier, a 16-year-old sophomore at Woodrow Wilson High School. “We care about education, we care about fair housing and we care about gun violence, especially.”
The next election in the District is the June Democratic primary, where Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) faces no serious challengers and six members of the D.C. Council are up for reelection.