Tens of thousands of high-school students and their younger allies walked out of schools Friday in cities across the United States, as part of a global strike to demand action on the issue that will define their future: climate change. While older Americans continue to drag their heels—or, as in the case of the president and his appointees, literally deny reality—young people are organizing, rallying, and marching for a Green New Deal and necessary action to save the planet.
The rising generation of young Americans is politically engaged, and politically mature. These teenagers hold out the promise of a more just and equitable United States, not to mention the survival of the planet. “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,” says Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who argues “They are at the forefront of social and legislative movements and have earned inclusion in our democracy.”
To that end, the Massachusetts Democrat last week proposed to lower the federal election voting age from 18 to 16 years old.
“Some have questioned the maturity of our youth. I don’t,” the congresswoman told the House. “A sixteen-year-old in 2019 possesses a wisdom and a maturity that comes from 2019 challenges, hardships, and threats. A sixteen-year-old will bring with them the 2019 fears that their father’s insulin will run out before the next paycheck. A seventeen-year-old will bring with them the 2019 hopes to be the first in their family to earn a college degree. A sixteen-year-old will bring with them the 2019 lessons they learned picking up shifts waiting tables to support their family while their mother was deployed. A seventeen-year-old will bring with them a 2019 solemn vow to honor the lives of their classmates stolen by a gunman. And now is the time for us to demonstrate 2019 courage that matches the challenges of the modern-day sixteen and seventeen year old.”
Pressley made a compelling argument that won the support of 126 House members for her proposed amendment to HR 1, the sweeping election- and ethics-reform measure that passed the House March 8. Pressley’s amendment failed, but the proposal to lower the voting age won the support of the chamber’s most visionary members, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), as well as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) endorsed the change. “I myself have always been for lowering the voting age to 16, said the California Democrat, who explained that she is enthusiastic about the idea “because when kids are in school, they’re so interested, they’re so engaged.”
The fight to lower the voting age to 16 may seem like a new frontier in the long struggle to expand voting rights in the United States. But this is an idea based in common sense and honest observation.
Noting that high-school students have “far better BS detectors” than adults, constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe asked last year, as the Parkland students reframed the gun debate, “Wouldn’t it be great if the voting age were lowered to 16?”
It would be great. And it ought to be on the agenda of progressives going forward.
There’s nothing radical about extending the franchise to people aged 16 to 18. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua allow voting at 16, as did Scotland during its historic 2014 independence election.
So, too, do the German states of Brandenburg, Bremen, and Hamburg; the Swiss canton of Glarus; and the semi-autonomous UK semi-autonomous territories of the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey. British billionaire Richard Branson began arguing after Britain’s 2016 #Brexit vote (which younger voters overwhelmingly opposed) for lowering the voting age to 16, because young people are more “interested, motivated and informed” than ever before, and often “on the right side of history.”
In the United States, where it has been argued that a lower voting age might well have influenced the results of primary contests for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and fall voting for the presidency itself, the movement to lower the voting age to 16 has taken off in recent years. Berkeley gave 70 percent support to a youth-voting initiative in November 2016, and other communities have already proven that the idea can work. In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, became the first municipality in the United States to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds—for local elections—and Hyattsville, Maryland, followed suit in 2015.
“Empirical evidence suggests that the earlier in life a voter casts their first ballot, the more likely they are to develop voting as a habit,” explains the election-reform group FairVote. “While one’s first reaction might be to question the ability of young voters to cast a meaningful vote, research shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters. It is time that they are empowered to put that knowledge to good use at the polls, and make voting a habit in their formative years. These young citizens are old enough to drive, work without restrictions on their hours, and pay taxes—they should also have a voice in their local government.”
Yes, young citizens should be able to vote in local elections. But their participation should not stop there. As the climate march illustrates, young people are more than ready to make their voices heard with regard to federal policy and global concerns. They should have their votes counted, as well.
Expanding voting rights requires a big change—it took a 1971 constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. But the case for votes at 16 has been made. It’s time, as Congresswoman Pressley says, to ensure “that those who have a stake in our democracy will also have a say in our democracy.”