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.