EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article was published first by Generation Progress and is reposted here with permission.
Contrary to how it sounds, turning “sweet” 16 is largely anticlimactic for most teens. Aside from some states’ granting the ability to get a driver’s license or permit, the legal privileges afforded those who have reached 16 or 17 are few to none.
However, recent suggestions would change this dramatically by giving these teens one of the most important political abilities and exercises of civic participation across America: the right to vote.
The movement to lower the voting age in the United States has recently gained traction, with many advocacy groups and political leaders arguing that it would encourage civic engagement among the nation’s young people.
As House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said at last year’s Make Progress National Summit (held by Generation Progress): “I am all for—I’d love to hear your thoughts on it; I know you’ll let me know—for lowering the voting age to high-school age, whether that’s 16 or 17.” She continued: “When kids are in school, they’re so interested, they’re so engaged. And we’d like them to be at least registered before they leave.”
The idea of lowering the voting age is often considered to be unrealistic or impractical. But for a group of teens across the nation following Pelosi’s lead, the ballot measure is edging closer and closer to a not-so-distant reality.
Getting Started in Maryland
For Mattan Berner-Kadish, the fight for lowering the voting age is personal. Growing up in Takoma Park, Maryland, Berner-Kadish, 19, remembers eagerly going to the polls with his parents. Until finally, the day came for him to cast his own vote sooner than he expected.
He was only 17.
“That day it was never really about whether I was making a huge difference or not. It was that I think voting is an incredibly meaningful and important thing to do in our society and as a part of our democracy,” said Berner-Kadish.
While there was only one person running for his ward in Takoma Park that day, to Berner-Kadish casting a vote was part of a bigger commitment he had to civic engagement.
“I care and I always have cared. Voting that day was about displaying that regardless of who is running or what I am voting for, I want to vote because voting is important. Democracy is something you participate in, not a spectator sport.”
Berner-Kadish was far from alone in exercising his right to vote that day in 2013. In that city council election, 16- and 17-year-olds voted at over twice the rate of voters 18 years old and older, the average national voting age.
In 2013, Takoma Park became the first city in the United States to change its charter and extend municipal voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds. While electoral reform organizations such as FairVote and other local officials helped to provide backing research pushing for this measure, it was passionate young people who were the driving force at public hearings and through local advocacy.
Similarly, in January 2015, Hyattsville, Maryland, became the second city in the United States to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections.
Organized by Generation Citizen and launched in December 2015, Berner-Kadish is a member of Vote16USA Advisory Board, a group of young people working to lower the voting age by helping to start new local campaigns and spread national awareness. Among these young advocates working with Vote16USA are Anna He and Oliver York from San Francisco, California.
Looking Toward the Ballot In San Francisco
Neither of Anna He’s parents were registered to vote when she started advocating for equal voter representation through Vote16SF. They have been living in the United States for over 20 years. By discussing with them the importance of voting, however, she has helped her mother become officially registered.
He, 17, serves on the San Francisco Youth Commission and has been working to lower the voting age in San Francisco since Vote16SF began in March 2015.
“If you give 16- and 17-year-olds the chance to directly take part in the electoral process, we can and will, prove you wrong,” said He. “Studies show that the political knowledge of a 16-year-old is about the same as a 21-year-old, which is close to the average of all adults.”
Another San Francisco native, Oliver York, has a similar vision.
York, 16, who began his advocacy on this issue as “a research project to understand how to motivate young people to take civic action,” has been a vocal supporter of the ballot measure since his freshman year of high school.
“What got me hooked and has kept me working on this issue is the potential to significantly impact the education and voter turnout and engagement of young people,” said York.
In January, the San Francisco Youth Commission passed a resolution urging the expansion of voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds. On Tuesday, May 10, 2016, the Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a charter amendment on the November ballot to lower the voting age to 16 in city elections. They will take up the legislation again later this month.
Advocates for this ballot measure have suggested that lowering the voting age would help solve issues with voter turnout and low levels of civic engagement far beyond just casting their first ballot.
Voter Turnout and the Case Against 18
Research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement indicates that there is a “trickle-up” effect on civic participation: The younger people start voting, the higher the likelihood they will participate in subsequent elections.
“Voting is habitual,” he said. “When people vote early on and develop good voting habits, they are more likely to become lifelong voters. Having 16- and 17- year-old voters will help increase voter turnout over the long-term.”
Recent voter turnout among the nation’s young people has been alarmingly low. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots, and only 46.7 percent of young people said they were registered to vote—the lowest numbers on both fronts in the past 40 years.
Many argue that this could be, in part, because 18 is simply a challenging year to get started with fulfilling this civic duty.
“Eighteen is just a really bad year. Eighteen is a year of intense transition. A lot of people are going off to college or going off to work, and high school is ending. By contrast, by age 16, students are embedded in their communities,” York said. “All of these issues very directly and personally influence them and their lives.”
One of the most common arguments against lowering the voting age is that young people may lack informed judgment to cast a vote independent of what others may think.
“When I was 16, I literally would have just voted for whatever my parents told me to do,” said Emily Mobbs, 19, from New York. “I just don’t think someone who is that young really is ready to vote and make their own decision.”
However, groups such as FairVote and Vote16USA have rebutted this point, referencing a survey conducted on the voting patterns of 16- and 17-year-olds prior to the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. Here, over 40 percent of young people had different voting intentions and political preferences from their parents’.
“Sixteen- and 17-year-olds generally vote on their own interests and are able to make these decisions on their own,” said Austin Plier, a representative from FairVote.
Additionally, many worry that 16- and 17-year-olds may not have enough relevant practical experience to vote.
“I don’t really think a vast majority of them actually care enough because it does not register that these things actually affect their lives,” said Jessica Howell, a rising George Washington University sophomore from Dover, Delaware. “A 16-year-old high-school student isn’t going to think about how raising federal income taxes is going to affect their lives, because most 16-year-olds do not have an annual income to tax.”
However, to 16-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School junior Abigail Koerner, Howell’s comments could not be further from the truth.
“As a teenager with a paycheck, I am concerned that I am taxed every month without the ability to vote,” Koerner said. “I have worked in a department store, a pancake house, and a small motel. At all of these establishments, I received a monthly paycheck that was always taxed in some way. Every American has heard the slogan ‘no taxation without representation,’ yet teenagers are being taxed without a vote.”
While cities such as Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and San Francisco demonstrate the case for lowering the voting age on a municipal level, it is Washington, DC, that is quite possibly the most consequential city to discuss this measure.
Under legislation proposed by DC City Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), 16- and 17-year-olds would have the right to vote in the federal elections, such as the presidency, expanding the right to vote to young people more than any of the aforementioned cities.
Yet while all eyes should be attentive towards Washington, as it could be the first city to affect voting rights for young people on a federal level, voting-rights experts such as Plier suggest that the future for lowering the voting age is still primarily “a local one for now,” with a focus on city- and state-wide efforts.
Moving forward, while the nation as a whole may not yet be ready to open its voting booths for 16- and 17-year-olds, youth advocates from across the nation are optimistic about the future. “I don’t think age should be a barrier to creating change,” said youth activist and University of Texas at San Antonio freshman Sanah Jivani. “I believe 16- and 17-year-olds have a voice that deserves to be heard.”