The “March for Our Lives” was one of the largest demonstrations in American history. Its organizers, the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were teenagers. As were the tens of thousands of students who walked out of their classrooms to protest gun violence just days before. The Black Lives Matter protests that brought new attention to the problems of police violence and systemic racism in 2014 and 2015 saw similar action from teenagers and other young people.
Teens have always been political actors, but the recent rise in youth activism has prompted some cities—and even some states—to consider extending voting rights to people under 18. Washington D.C., for example, is primed to lower the voting age to 16, giving thousands of District teenagers a chance to vote in local and federal elections. In 2013, nearby Takoma Park, Maryland, enfranchised 16- and 17-year-olds, giving them the ballot in local elections. And lawmakers in Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, and New York have introduced bills that would lower the voting age to 16 or 17.
This is progress. At 16, teenagers can drive, work, pay taxes, and if they break the law, they can be tried as adults. At 17, they can join the military (with a parent’s consent). Teenagers have a stake in this society. And they deserve the right to advance their interests at the ballot box.
The case against lowering the voting age is straightforward, if a little tautological: teenagers are too young to vote. They aren’t mature enough, or smart enough, or engaged enough to have a full say in governance. But then, the same is true for millions of adults who do vote. College students—who aren’t much more mature than high school seniors—can vote. Americans without formal education can vote. And the millions of Americans who pay little attention to politics—who might be misinformed on the issues themselves—can vote.
The only formal qualification for voting is age (and in some states, criminal record). And the only real informal qualification is a degree of autonomy—an ability to perceive one’s interests and act accordingly. Teenagers have that. By age 15, the typical person has largely developed the cognitive and executive function skills that are most relevant to voting.
But none of these arguments form a case for teen voting so much as a brief against the opposition. If there’s an affirmative reason to lower the voting age—beyond the justice of doing so—it’s to improve the health of our democracy at a time when it’s flailing.
We know from recent activism that teenagers are eager to participate in the political process. We also know that 16- and 17-year-olds possess civic knowledge on par with their slightly older counterparts. What’s more, in places where they can vote, they do so enthusiastically. Teens in Takoma Park, for example, voted at twice the rate of older voters in the 2015 local elections. Looking abroad, Austria—which lowered its voting age to 16—has seen similarly high turnout among its youngest voters, especially compared to their 18- to 20-year-old counterparts. Evidence from Scotland, where 16- and 17-year-olds voted in the 2014 independence referendum, suggests that simply enfranchising these younger teens will encourage them to vote.
This is important. Voting is a habit, and getting Americans to vote earlier is a recipe for increasing participation throughout their lives. The reverse is also true: Non-voting produces more non-voting. As it stands, we do a poor job encouraging the habit. Few states have universal voter registration or mail-in balloting—measures proven to increase turnout. Too many states have barriers and obstacles, from cumbersome registration rules to restrictive voter identification laws. In addition to this bureaucracy, 18-year-olds (and other young adults, for that matter) have to deal with their rapidly changing lives. Disruption is not conducive to civic engagement.
One way to push against this—to encourage voting and feed the habit—is to start early. Combined with voting reforms like universal registration, lowering the voting age would give teenagers a chance to learn the routine of elections while their lives are more stable. They would have a stake in the process and a reason to keep voting as they get older. The changes could even have a domino effect. Evidence from Denmark suggests that parents with a younger voter in the household are themselves more likely to vote. Expanding the franchise may boost participation and help build a stronger culture of voting.
“Today’s 18-year-old is surely as qualified to vote in every meaningful respect as the 21-year-old of 1867,” said Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh in 1970 during hearings on lowering the voting age. “If, as some people believe, young people have to earn the right to vote, I believe that they have met the test.” The same logic applies to the current moment. Today’s 16-year-olds are as qualified to vote as the 18-year-olds of 50 years ago. And seeing as how they’re already fighting to change the world, they deserve it.
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