Theo Shoag knows all of the reasons people think the voting age shouldn’t be lowered to 16. He just doesn’t think any of them are valid.
So the 16-year-old Capitol Hill resident says he was “super excited” when he learned that D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced a bill this month that would give 16- and 17-year-olds in the District the right to vote in city and federal elections. If it’s approved, they would become the first Americans of their age who could vote for president in 2016.
“I’m really passionate about this, and I’m going to work to make sure this happens,” said Shoag, a junior at Washington Latin Public Charter School who sees political engagement as a responsibility. He serves as the D.C. representative of Youth for National Change, an advocacy organization. “When you vote as a young person, that gets you in the mind-set for voting later in life, and that’s something crucial that this nation needs.”
If the bill to lower the voting age in Washington passes — and that’s a big if, given the probable legislative challenges and congressional scrutiny — the District would be the first major city in the country to extend the full franchise to younger voters. Two small Maryland towns, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, are currently the only municipalities in the country where 16- and 17-year-olds can vote. But there they cast ballots only in city elections. San Francisco is the only other city where a voting-age reduction is being considered.
Lowering the age in Washington, home to 15,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 17, would put a national spotlight on a practice that advocates say increases civic involvement and creates a durable voting habit. And, the bill’s author Allen argues, if 16- and 17-year-olds can drive, work, pay taxes and be charged as adults if they commit crimes, why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote for their representatives?
But do 16- and 17-years-olds in the District want the right to vote? And would they vote if they had it?
“People might think we wouldn’t take it seriously, but I think we would,” said Jacquii Howard, 17, a senior at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington. “If we talk about it and get more insight into how things run, I would be more interested.”
“I think a lot of my friends, and myself, we’re mature enough to listen to what people are saying and decide on the issues,” said Lucy Fredell, 16, a junior at Sidwell Friends in Northwest Washington. “It’s a great way to get involved in D.C. government and learn how it all operates. I can’t think of any drawbacks.”
Cardale Richards, 16, a junior at Eastern High School, said he does not think that his voice is heard now. He would vote if he could. “I look at the news and see all of the political stuff,” he said. “I would like to be able to put the right person in office. We need to deal with racism, police brutality, all of that. And we need to know what we can do to help.”
Not all young people in the District are convinced.
“I disagree with it 100 percent,” declared Nakya Robinson , 17, a senior at Phelps High School in Northeast. “Teenagers are irresponsible. Sixteen-year-olds can barely make decisions on what they’re going to wear in the morning, let alone who should lead the country.”
But Robinson conceded that her opinion is not widely shared in her circle of friends.
“They probably think this is a good idea,” she said with a sigh.
Allen, whose bill was co-sponsored by Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said reactions to his proposal have been split.
“I’ve received e-mails from people who say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. We totally need to be doing this,’ ” Allen said. “And I’ve received e-mails from people who say, ‘I can’t believe you even spent 30 seconds talking about this. It’s a horrible idea.’ ”
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she is not sure whether lowering the age is good policy, but she wants to hear the arguments for it and have the discussion.
“Our turnout for voting is really dismal, and if we could capture people earlier and get them involved in the process, that would be wonderful,” she said.
In Washington, which is overwhelmingly Democratic and reliably provides its three electoral votes to the Democrat on the presidential ballot, adding a few thousand young voters to the roll would not affect a presidential election. But they could make a difference in close races for mayor or city council.
In neighboring Takoma Park, a liberal enclave of 18,000, there have been few complaints about the decision two years ago to allow 16- and 17-year olds to vote. Most of the objections came from people in other states, said Kate Stewart, who was elected mayor last week.
The concerns she heard — that young voters are not mature enough, do not know enough about the issues or would simply vote the way their parents told them to vote — had a familiar ring, said Stewart, who has two daughters approaching voter eligibility.
“All of these objections have been heard in the past and have been used as reasons for disenfranchising people,” she said. For her, none of the arguments passed muster. And there’s another reason she supports the younger voting age.
“From a public official’s point of view, it makes you pay attention a lot more to issues that are important to 16- and 17-year-olds,” Stewart said.
So far in Takoma Park, younger-voter participation has been impressive. In the 2013 election there, 44 percent of registered 16- and 17-year-olds voted, compared with just 11 percent of all voters 18 and older. In Hyattsville, 16- and 17-year-olds also participated at more than twice the rate of their 18-and-older counterparts.
Brazil, Austria and Cuba are among the small number of nations that allow 16-year-olds to vote. But there is growing interest in expanding the right. Last year, Scotland allowed anyone 16 or older to vote in an independence referendum. The referendum failed, but 16- and 17-year-olds participated in significant numbers. In June, the Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly to permanently extend the franchise for 16-year-olds in Scottish and local government elections. And just last month in Australia, the opposition Labor Party called for the voting age to be lowered to 17 or 16.
The gradual shift to lowering the age limit is inevitable, says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a national voting rights organization, and a Takoma Park resident.
There is a knee-jerk reaction that lowering the voting age is an odd idea, he says. But, Richie says, once people study the issue, they tend to come around to embracing it.
“High school is just a much better time to introduce people to voting, and that first vote is a really important one for introducing people to a lifetime of voter participation,” he said. “If we’re hoping to cultivate a greater culture of participation, then it becomes clearer about why this is valuable.”
In the District, Diamond Preston is not convinced that extending the vote is a good idea, but she’s open to exploring it.
“It might be a good idea to start small and see what happens,” said Preston, 16, a sophomore at Eastern High. “We could start with the mayor or the council, but we shouldn’t start with the president. Start small and work our way up.”
There’s something else Preston and other potential young voters should know. The only age requirement for holding public office in the District is that one is old enough to vote. If the bill becomes law, the city could have a 16-year-old council member. Or even mayor.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.