Maya Gonzales Fitzpatrick and Becca Richie are students at Sidwell Friends School.
With Tuesday’s D.C. Democratic primary, it’s important that residents continue an ongoing conversation about ways to increase voter turnout in the District. If history is any indication, turnout in the primary election will be well below 30 percent. This reflects a trend of low turnout across the country, and that trend is particularly problematic among young voters.
Circle, a leader in youth civic engagement research, estimates that eligible voters ages 18 to 29 voted at a rate of about 20 percent in the 2014 midterm elections. That’s low even compared with the national turnout rate of 36.4 percent that year. District leaders need to consider innovative and proven measures to improve civic engagement.
It’s time to lower the voting age to 16 for D.C. elections.
We don’t have to go very far to see how this can work. Our neighbors in Takoma Park and Hyattsville became the first and second cities, respectively, in the United States to lower the voting age for local elections, and it’s paying off. In Takoma Park’s first election in which 16- and 17-year-olds could vote, newly enfranchised voters voted at twice the rate of other age groups. Other countries, including Austria and Brazil, have lowered the voting age for their national elections, with positive results.
Research also shows lowering the voting age to be a common-sense way to increase voter turnout in the short term and long term. Many 16- and 17-year-olds have lived in their community for years and are learning about civics and voting in their high schools. It makes sense to participate in the democratic process for the first time while learning about it in school. That is why 16-year-old voters tend to vote at a higher rate the first time they have an opportunity to cast a vote. Studies also show that voting is habit-forming. By allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, we can encourage a lifelong habit.
Age 18 is a rather inconvenient time to cast one’s first vote. Many 18-year-olds are expected to cast their first vote during a time of transition to college and often in an unfamiliar community. This makes registration more difficult and makes casting a vote in a contest full of unfamiliar candidates and local issues much less meaningful.
Extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds is simply the right thing to do. At age 17, my classmates and I can drive, pay taxes and work without any restriction on hours. We’re learning about the political process at this point in our lives, and we are just as informed as our 18-year-old peers on the issues at stake. Research from other countries also demonstrates that “voter quality” among 16- and 17-year-olds is the same as that of 18-year-olds, and there is no neurological evidence to suggest our brains aren’t mature enough to make important decisions at the polls. Democracy is better with more voices at the table, and our voices deserve to be included.
Lowering the voting age in local elections is a simple, common-sense way to engage young voters earlier and more effectively in the political process. The next step in making this a reality is for the D.C. Council to hold a public hearing so that advocates can present the facts and make their case. As election season heats up for local races, we hope candidates and elected leaders in the District make expanding democracy to 16- and 17-year-old residents a priority.
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