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It’s Time To Lower The Voting Age To 16

Grown adults have voted their way into the current morass in this country. Now is the time for a younger generation to lead the way.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

America is witnessing a political and social upheaval with the COVID-19 pandemic and economic turmoil, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the myriad crises facing the nation. The public response to the toxic policies of the Trump administration, its corruption and incompetence, and a government that is unresponsive to the public has been an awakening that has led to a deluge of civic engagement and historic levels of voting before Election Day. Although young people are criticized for apathy and low participation in the electoral process, 2020 promises a surge in young voters.

On the federal level and in states and localities, there is an effort to lower the voting age from 18 years to 16 years, which would fuel further youth involvement in politics and allow them to shape a nation that better reflects their needs and concerns.

Last year, Representative Ayana Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced an amendment to House Resolution 1 to lower the voting age for federal elections to 16. HR 1, which passed the House and stalled in the Senate, would expand voting rights, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and allow for campaign finance and redistricting reform, automatic voter registration and D.C. statehood, among other measures. Pressley’s amendment failed 126-305, with heavy opposition from both parties.

“From gun violence, to immigration reform, to climate change, to the future of work—our young people are organizing, mobilizing and calling us to action. They are at the forefront of social and legislative movements and have earned inclusion in our democracy,” Pressley said on the House floor, noting the legislation would ensure that young people who have a stake in democracy would have their say in federal elections. “Beginning at the age of 16, young people are contributing to both the labor force and their local economies by paying income taxes, and yet they are deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

America has traveled down this road before. Nothing in the original wording of U.S. Constitution sets age limits on the franchise, and 21 was the nationwide voting age until nearly 50 years ago, when it was lowered to 18.  

In the 1960s, the drive to expand suffrage arose from the Vietnam War draft—on the grounds that people who are old enough to fight are old enough to vote—and heightened youth involvement in political activism. Young people across America were engaged in protests in the streets, facing police repression and sometimes losing their lives fighting against racial oppression at home, and sending young Americans to kill and die in an unjust war. Efforts by young activists resulted in the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which added 10 million new voters for the 1972 election, half of whom voted.

Like half a century ago, today we live in tumultuous times. Young people are faced with pandemic-related joblessness and an economic system working against them, crippling student debt, and a wrecked environment they inherited from older generations. Youth are essential to any revolution or movement for social change. As we see teens taking a stand on climate change, police violence, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, and other issues, civic engagement is crucial. Yet, at a time when so many issues affect youth and their future, they cannot vote.

“When we look down the road, we don’t see a hopeful future. We don’t see a future where we’ll have access to clean water and clean air, and equitable schools,” Tyler Okeke, 19, a student activist at the University of Chicago, and an organizer with Power California, which empowers young voters of color, told NPR. “Voting is just the logical next step in making sure that a generation—that is so passionate about change and is so deeply affected by the decisions that are being made now—that we are inserted into policy-making and have a say in our democracy.”

Voter participation rates among young Americans has been among the lowest in the world, even as they express an interest in political participation, reflecting obstacles that make it more difficult to vote. However, young voters are increasingly galvanized. The TikTok and Instagram generation is surging at the polls. Youth turnout is on the rise, echoing the widespread double-digit increase in turnout among ages 18-29 in the 2018 midterms and reflecting the wave of mass protests taking place this year.

Demographic changes highlight the potential power of the youth vote. While older generations are declining as a percentage of eligible voters, compared to 2016, Generation Z has increased to 10 percent from 4 percent, according to Pew Research Center. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse and soon-to-be well-educated generation, and its members join millennials in having more liberal social and political views than those who came before them. At over a third of the electorate, millennials and Gen Z together are poised to become the largest voting bloc in the U.S.

A 2013 report from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) recommended lowering the voting age—and requiring civics education as students become eligible to vote—to engage young people and help address dysfunction and polarization in U.S. politics.    

Several countries already have a national voting age under 18. A constitutional amendment would most likely require approval of two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate and three-fourths of the state legislatures, or 38 states. But states and localities are pursuing their own reforms.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. provide for voter participation under the age of 18. Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C. provide some leeway allowing localities to permit younger people to vote or register to vote, and several other states are considering such legislation. An initiative on the ballot today in San Francisco would lower the voting age for local elections.    

In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, extended the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in municipal elections, becoming the first city to do so. In the few years after the change in policy, teens’ rate of voter turnout far outpaced that of the overall electorate. Hyattsville, Maryland, followed suit in 2015, followed by Riverdale Park, and Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2019.

This year,  approval of the ballot measure Proposition G would make San Francisco the first large city in the nation to permit 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. Berkeley has implemented, and Oakland is considering, a similar measure for school board elections. In 2016, when youth activists first pushed for its passage, the measure was narrowly defeated. 

Proposition 18 would support a state constitutional amendment in California to allow 17-year-olds who will reach 18 by the next election to vote in primary and special elections. And a City Council committee in Northampton, Massachusetts, recommended a change to the city charter that would extend municipal voting to 16-year-olds. The change must be approved by the council, the mayor and the state legislature.

Expanding suffrage for young people will increase voter turnout, create good habits by engaging youth in the political process at an early age, hold elected officials accountable to them, and improve their lives. Such a move could also boost civics education in schools. The argument that voting requires rational, informed decision-making lacking in 16-year-olds does not hold water. Grown adults have voted their way into the current morass in this country, and now is the time for a younger generation to lead the way.  

David A. Love is a Philadelphia-based writer, commentator, and journalism and media studies professor. He writes for CNN, Al Jazeera, Atlanta Black Star, theGrio, and other publications.