On Tuesday, Ben Miller plans to step into a booth at the Takoma Park Community Center and do something that the country’s other 16-year-olds can’t: cast a vote in an election.
Heady stuff for a slim, freckled teen who works part time at a gelato shop in between attending classes at Montgomery Blair High School and playing with his band, Ladle Fight. He and about 350 other 16- and 17-year-olds were granted the right to vote in municipal elections by the Takoma City Council in May, making the Montgomery County community the nation’s first to lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
“It’s a valuable privilege,” Miller said as he sat on the floor with friends in a crowded school hallway, munching on his lunch of crackers, a fruit bar and a sandwich.
Even so, there’s hardly been a rush to the ballot box. Takoma Park City Clerk Jessie Carpenter estimates that about 90 16- and 17-year-olds have registered to vote. And the election is a snore: the mayor faces no opposition and just one of six seats on the City Council was contested. Then, on Friday, one of the Ward 4 candidates, Eric Mendoza, dropped out, leaving Terry Seamens unopposed.
Miller, a junior at Blair whose mother is a writer and whose father does international relief and development work, registered to vote a few weeks ago. He and a friend were wandering around an outdoor festival near Piney Branch Elementary School when they heard a voice say: “You guys look like you might be underage.”
A woman sitting at a table with a clipboard urged Miller to register to vote. Maryland allows 16- and 17 -year-olds to pre-register to vote through the Motor Vehicle Administration. But Miller doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. So the red-haired teen put his name down.
Miller said he has no burning issues motivating him, not even the legalization of marijuana, a popular topic with some of his peers. He plans to vote for incumbent Mayor Bruce Williams and his current council member, Kay Daniels-Cohen.
His new civic duty inspired him to accompany his mother to a recent candidate forum at the community center. Asked if he would have gone otherwise, Miller shook his head and said, “No way!”
His engagement is exactly what Takoma Park officials were after when they lowered the voting age.
“The question was, ‘How do we get more people to vote?’ ” said council member Tim Male, who introduced the proposal, one of several reforms to city election rules this year designed to boost turnout.
Other changes included same-day registration, allowing paroled felons to vote and giving candidates easier access to apartment buildings to campaign. Residents living in the country illegally have been allowed to vote in city elections since 1993 — a gesture that barely raises an eyebrow in what’s often dubbed the People’s Republic of Takoma Park.
Male got the idea for lowering the age from Rob Richie, director of the national reform organization FairVote and a Takoma Park resident. Richie had seen reports from Denmark that suggested younger teenagers are more likely to cast a ballot than their slightly older peers.
Ever since the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote more than 40 years ago, younger voters have been something of a bust. They typically go to the polls in much smaller numbers than their elders.
Turnout is especially dismal for local elections, even in the highly political environs of Takoma Park, which has a voter registration rate that tops 70 percent. During the last municipal elections in 2011, a meager 19 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, Carpenter said.
Eighteen-year-olds, it turns out, “are not a very good first voting age group,” Richie said, because many of them are in the midst of leaving their childhood homes. “As you get more disrupted in your life, the less likely you are to vote,” he said. “Voting is this communitarian act, it is about a connection to a broader community.”
Offering that connection to younger teens could get them into the habit of voting for the rest of their lives. Or at least that’s what Takoma Park officials hope.
Expanding the franchise to 16-year-olds also is not a stretch in Maryland, Richie said, since 16- and 17-year-olds can already pre-register to vote.
Not everyone on the council supported the change. The lone no vote, Fred Schultz, said the result won’t be worth the time and effort the city devoted to the issue. Nor will it do much to achieve the larger goal of getting younger voters engaged in politics, he said.
“The whole idea is rather lame,” said Schultz, but his colleagues seemed caught up in the idea that “it’s going to be so exciting to say we are the first municipality in the country to do this.”
“People in Takoma Park think they are special,” he said.
Schultz also objected to the way the voting age was changed — via a council vote. He said if the council had wanted to boost turnout, they could have put the issue on the ballot and let residents decide.
In letters and testimony, some opponents said that young people barely old enough to drive a car don’t have enough perspective to vote. One critic said that teens should not be allowed to “dilute” the value of the ballots cast by “older, more experienced voters.”
Others predicted that the 16- and 17-year-olds most likely to vote are from politically active homes and are thus likely to amplify the power of an already well-represented group.
“The cynic in me sees this not as an opportunity to increase the franchise among those less likely to participate,” wrote Donna Victoria, “but rather as a threat that could actually increase the over-representation of the mouthy, better off homeowner cohort in TP (insert my name here).”
Miller places himself in the category of “kids of politically active parents.” He has memories of accompanying them to peace rallies when he was younger and said he gets into a fairly in-depth political discussion about twice a week — “at least one time without my parents.”
Miller is aware that he is part of a tiny vanguard. “I understand the apathy. How much of a difference will it really make?” he said. “I’m still excited about the opportunity. The turnout is so low, even a small amount could make a difference.”