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Voters apathetically trickled into the polls yesterday for local and regional elections, turnout at its usual depressingly low standard for non-Presidential years. But in Takoma Park, Maryland, something especially interesting was happening at the polls, because 16 and 17-year-olds were casting their ballots, and for real, not as a civics exercise.
Teens were granted the franchise in municipal elections earlier this year, making headlines and history, and their participation raises an important national question: how old should people be to vote?
Since the United States came into being, voting rights have been in a constant state of evolution, with more and more classes of people obtaining access to the polls over the course of the centuries. It may be that the 21st century is the time of the youth voting rights movement, with Takoma Park as a model.
But Takoma Park is already a rather interesting place -- in some ways it reminds me of Berkeley (it’s a nuclear free zone, for example). It’s a highly liberal DC suburb that hasn’t just granted voting rights to younger teens, but also to undocumented immigrants, on the grounds that both are affected by decisions made at the polls, and thus both should have the right to participate in elections. Takoma Park has taken several measures to increase voter participation and encourage voting, including allowing same day registration and giving paroled felons the right to vote.
In that landscape, giving younger teens the right to vote fits right in, but what about in the larger picture? Should the voting age across the US be lowered to 16 instead of 18, putting teens in a position where they could vote before they could legally smoke, join the military (though teens can join underage with parental consent), and enjoy other rights, including full emancipation, that come with their 18th birthdays?
There’s some evidence to suggest that giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote would actually be a very sound move. Civic engagement is supposed to be a crucial part of American life, and it’s something that we are encouraged to participate in from a young age; depending on where you grow up and what kind of community support you have, you may have canvassed, phone-banked, volunteered, and participated in other activities before turning 18. Civics is a required class to graduate in many high schools, and yet we don’t allow students who are being educated in American government issues to undertake that most basic rite of passage, that of casting a ballot.
There’s an argument that extending the voting age could actually increase participation later, by making voting into a routine habit rather than introducing it when many young people are just moving away from home. Jonathan Bernstein, writing on the issue for The American Prospect, argues that:
There’s also a simple practical reason for extending the franchise, at least if we care about eventually having high levels of participation. Eighteen turns out to be a terrible age to start voting. Many first-time voters now are off at college, asked to either vote in a place they no longer live or in a place they don’t intend to live in the future. For those who don’t continue school or attend a local four- or two-year college, many still move out of their parents’ house—and, given single-member districts, often into an address with a somewhat or entirely different set of politicians and even a different set of local issues. On the whole, 18- (and 19-) year-olds have relatively unstable lives that aren’t well-suited for establishing voting as a habit.
In 2008, the Census reported 225.5 million 18-20 year olds in the United States, of whom 64.9 reported that they had registered to vote; that’s a rather dismal percentage. Even fewer, 58.2, said they actually went to the polls. And that was a Presidential election year, one involving a President who specifically reached out to youth and worked hard to engage the youth vote.
Could the percentage of participation have been higher if 16-17 year olds had also been allowed to vote? It’s possible, because younger teens are typically still living at home in stable environments, and they’re a captive audience for voter registration and engagement. To promote youth voting, high schools could host their own polling places, allowing teens to vote without disrupting their schedules.
It’s not just about participation, though. As active members of society, teens are caught in a strange limbo; they are still dependents subject to their parents, and are still required to attend school and follow a complex set of laws that treats them like children even as they are maturing and finding their way in the world. Teens are directly affected by a number of issues on the ballot, including funding for K-12 and higher education, measures for local amenities and services like libraries, and more.
Young adults and younger teens in particular are often harangued for a lack of civic engagement, but some of that may be due to a sense of social disconnect. While voting is not the only form of civic power, and there is nothing to stop teens from participating in politics in other ways, it is an important symbol, and some teens may feel put off by being denied the right to vote.
Some opponents argue that teens can’t be trusted to make wise decisions at the polls, because they’re too young. The same argument, though, could be made of many ostensible adults. People of all ages can make decisions for bad reasons, can participate in elections without taking the time to get informed, can vote for candidates because they were told to by the people around them. Some voting teens undoubtedly would make poor decisions at the polls, but then again, the American public voted George W. Bush into office without any help from the 16 and 17-year-old set.
Giving younger teens the vote also doesn’t equate to giving their families another extra freebie vote. While some teens would undoubtedly vote with their families, that doesn’t make their votes less valid -- it means that they share the political values of their families, again, just as many adults vote similarly to their friends and family. Other teens might strike out on their own; a secret rebellion at the ballot box, after all, is between the voter and her ballot.
Earlier voting rights could actually increase the sense of social and civic responsibility among teens, reminding them that they live in a world where their actions matter and they do have power. As goes Takoma Park, so goes the rest of the country? Individual states can actually lower the voting age at any time, which could create pressure for yet another edit to the Constitution to extend voting rights even further.
Whether the movement will gain momentum beyond liberal enclaves remains to be seen, but there's a strong argument for giving 16 and 17-year-olds a voice of their own at the polls.