New Yorkers were headed to the polls Tuesday to cast votes in a Democratic primary that’s all but certain to determine the identity of the next mayor of the nation’s largest city. The turnout should be up from 2013, when less than 24 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the city’s last vigorously contested Democratic mayoral primary. But the safe bet is that most eligible voters won’t participate in what is widely seen as a definitional contest for the future of not just of New York but urban centers nationwide, as they wrestle with issues of equity, policing, housing affordability, and post-pandemic renewal.
What can be done to boost public engagement with local elections? One of the best suggestions, from scholars and activists, is to get young people hooked on the habit of voting early on. And the best way to do that is by lowering the voting age to 16.
In the few localities where the voting age has been lowered, teenagers have proven to be more reliable voters than adults.
Young people make good voters. When the voting age has been lowered to 16, young people have shown our interest in voting. In 2013, when Takoma Park, Maryland, lowered its voting age to 16, registered voters under 18 had a turnout rate four times higher than voters over 18. And again in Hyattsville, Maryland (the second place in the U.S. to lower the voting age to 16), registered 16- and 17-year-old voters had a higher turnout out rate than older voters,
notes the National Youth Rights Association. “Similar trends have occurred outside the United States. Voters aged 16 to 17 had a higher turnout rate than older voters under age 30 in Norway’s 2011 elections, voters under 35 in Scotland’s 2014 referendum election, and voters aged 18-20 in Austria’s elections in 2011 and 2014.”
When they grow older, these reliable voters keep voting,
“Voting is a habitual act—people who vote in one election are more likely to vote in the next,” explains the youth rights association.
Lowering the voting age will establish new voters when people are less likely to be moving as a result of attending college or leaving their families. People under 18 tend to have stronger roots in their community, often having lived in the same area for many years and established connections to their school, family and friends, and other community groups. This gives us an awareness and appreciation of local issues. As we are less likely to live away from home, we don’t have to deal with unclear residency laws or absentee ballots that can discourage college students or other new voters. Because of the habitual nature of voting, encouraging new voters at a younger age will increase voter turnout as the population gets older.
As a presidential candidate in 2020 and as a mayoral candidate in 2021, Andrew Yang has advocated lowering the voting age and, no matter what folks may think about his other stances, Yang is right on this one.
“If you were to have 16-year-olds vote, what would that do? That would transform every high school in New York City into a hotbed of democracy,” announced Yang at a May event at which he rolled out proposals to lower the voting age and to allow “non-citizens who are lawful permanent residents” to vote.
Yang included these ideas—which he argued could be implemented on the local level—in a comprehensive “Expanding Democracy in New York City” proposal that was part of his campaign platform. It explained: “Expanding the franchise has historically been the cornerstone of democratic reforms—and always met with skepticism and sometimes violent opposition. Expanding the voting age to 16 and to noncitizen New Yorkers in municipal elections makes good sense—and criticisms of these proposals don’t hold up. New York City can make these democratic reforms—and we ought to be at the forefront of these essential, and more inclusive, measures.”
The idea of lowering the voting age also drew support from mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan, while candidates Maya Wiley, Eric Adams, Ray McGuire, and Scott Stringer expressed support for allowing green card holders to vote in municipal elections.
The debate about expanding the franchise should not end with this election, and it certainly should not be limited to New York City.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) has emerged as a vital national advocate on this issue, saying, “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.”
To that end, the Massachusetts Democrat has in the last two sessions of Congress proposed federal legislation to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. A March vote on a voting-age amendment advanced by Pressley and Representatives Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) drew 125 votes in the House—all from Democrats.
“A sixteen-year-old in 2021 possesses a wisdom and a maturity that comes from 2021 challenges, 2021 hardships, and 2021 threats,” Pressley explained in March. “Now is the time for us to demonstrate the courage that matches the challenges of the modern-day sixteen and seventeen-year-old. My amendment with Congresswomen Meng and Schakowsky would lower the voting age for federal elections from eighteen to sixteen years of age, and allow young people to have a say in our federal elections and the policies that impact their lives today and will shape the nation in their lifetime.”
The fight to lower the voting age to 16 may seem like something of a new frontier in the long struggle to expand voting rights in the United States. But this is not a radical notion. This is a reform based in common sense and honest observation.
Noting that high school students have “far better BS detectors” than adults, constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe asked several years ago, as Parkland, Fl., high school 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 at the federal, state, and local levels going forward.