WHEN D.C. COUNCIL member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation in 2015 to lower the voting age to 16, he was pretty much laughed down. He recalled the skeptical questions: “‘How can you convince me that a 16-year-old is mature enough, smart enough, engaged enough?” The bill died in committee.
When the proposal was reintroduced this week, a majority of council members signed on as co-sponsors and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) expressed support. One reason for the different reception — and why the nationwide push for lowering the voting age has been reinvigorated — is the thoughtful and influential activism of young people following February’s mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Upending decades of political tradition is clearly provocative, and the council should proceed carefully in deciding whether to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local and federal elections. A case could be made that 16-year-olds lack the life experience to make informed choices. But we think a more compelling argument can be made in favor of lowering the voting age as a measure that could encourage lifelong civic engagement.
The best predictor of whether someone will vote is whether they voted previously, and research suggests that 18 — a time of disruption and transition away from home and into the workforce or college — is not an optimum time to get young people into the habit. High school, said Joshua A. Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who has studied this issue, provides a more supportive environment, especially when twinned with improvements in civic education. He said there is no difference between the cognitive brain development of a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old; they are both capable of the reasoned, deliberate decision-making involved in voting.
A handful of municipalities across the country — including Takoma Park, which was the first in 2013 — have lowered the voting age (but only for local elections) with promising results. In the first election after Takoma Park’s reform, registered voters younger than 18 had a turnout rate four times that of voters older than 18. Several countries, including Scotland, allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who watched their friends and teachers gunned down mobilized out of a conviction that adults had failed them and they needed to look out for their own interests. Maybe it would make sense to give them and their cohort a bigger say in their future.
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