Hyattsville is considering a charter amendment that would lower the voting age to 16 as part of its effort to encourage more voter participation.
If adopted, the Prince George’s County city — home to 18,000 people less than a mile from the District of Columbia border — will follow Takoma Park in neighboring Montgomery County as the second municipal government in the nation to extend voting rights to minors.
“We keep telling youth we want them involved in our city and government, and yet the message we send by denying them the right to vote is that their voice doesn’t matter,” said Hyattsville Council member Patrick Paschall (D-Ward 3), who proposed the measure this fall.
Paschall, who was elected to his first term last year, brought up the suffrage issue for debate in November, saying that the amendment would be a vehicle for increasing voter turnout in municipal elections. In 2015, the mayor and half the council are up for reelection.
The youth vote is elusive at all levels of government. Young people’s voting patterns are nearly always lower than their elders, but the gap can be more pronounced in local elections.
On average in Hyattsville, about 10 percent of registered voters show up at the ballot box to elect an 11-member council and mayor to preside over a $21 million budget, said council clerk Laura Reams. Young people have the lowest margin of participation.
Their elected officials maintain roads, manage trash collection and have been at the helm of efforts to revitalize the Route 1 corridor of northern Prince George’s by turning it into an arts district and entertainment destination.
With teenagers beginning to drive, working their first jobs, interacting with city police and paying taxes, granting them the right to vote before they leave home can become “habit-forming” and have a long-term impact on their civic engagement, Paschall said.
“They are more likely to have higher voter turnout and be lifetime voters,” he said.
According to the “trickle up” effect, Paschall explained that having voting youths at home encourages families to discuss issues and travel together to the polling place.
Voting, he said, is a “social activity,” citing studies in countries such as Austria and Denmark, where 16- and 17-year-olds can vote.
Advocacy organizations like the National Youth Rights Association and locally based Fair Vote tout research that shows teen voters cast ballots more often, were more informed and expressed views independent of their parents. But critics argue that teens lack the maturity to vote because their brains are still developing and their influence on turnout is short-lived.
Young Scots turned out in surprisingly high numbers this past summer to vote in their country’s historic independence referendum for the first time. Some surveys showed under-18 voters were following the debate more closely than adults.
Locally, Takoma Park city officials reported that their underage registered voters turned out at twice the rate of their 18-and-older counterparts in their 2013 citywide elections. And in Maryland, 16- and 17-year-olds can preregister to vote through the Motor Vehicle Adminstration.
For Paschall and some of his fellow council members, these are all promising signs that enlarging Hyattsville’s electorate is a small step that will reap oversize benefits. Voter participation is a perpetual concern for the city.
The council has voted to extend early voting by one day and preemptively sends absentee ballots, with self-addressed stamped envelopes, to voters.
They have scheduled a public hearing for Jan. 5. The amendment requires a supermajority vote to pass, but Council member Timothy Hunt (Ward 3) said legislators should not make the decision alone: “Is this right for Hyattsville? That should be decided by voters” via ballot referendum, Hunt said.
On principle, Hunt does not have strong feelings for or against lowering the voting age. But the issue hardly tops the priority list for a council debating health benefits for pensioners and collective-bargaining rights for the police union, he said. Teenagers can participate in other ways such as campaigning and volunteering at the polls, he said.
Greenbelt Mayor Emmett Jordan (D) said the debate has caught the attention of 26 other municipalities in Prince George’s and could spread.
“Anything that increases voter participation is a good thing,” said Jordan, who is also president of the county’s municipal association. “But as we expand, it’s important to find meaningful ways to engage and inform” youths.
Even if Hyattsville youths are granted the right to vote, there will still be an area of public life that will remain out of reach until they turn 18. The council is drafting another charter change: establishing a minimum age for running for office. Just in case.