The last Mayoral election in Takoma Park, Maryland was, like all the others in recent memory, a poor example of Democracy in action. Only one candidate was on the ballot for Mayor in November, 2013; each of the small city’s six Council members were running unopposed. The mayor was reelected with fewer than 1,000 votes; overall, voter turnout was around 11 percent in a city of 17,000 people.
But the turnout was significantly higher among one new group of voters: Teenagers. In 2013, Takoma Park became the first city in America to lower its voting age to 16. That November, 44 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds who had registered came out to the polls—a stellar turnout, especially for an uncontested local race in a non-presidential year.
More importantly, those young voters are one step closer to remaining lifelong voters. Studies have shown that the earlier people vote, the more likely they are to continue voting; much like smoking or exercise, voting is a habit that sticks much easier when people are young and impressionable. One study even showed it had a “trickle-up” effect, encouraging more parents to vote as well.
“If you vote in the first election you’re eligible for, there’s a better chance you’ll continue voting,” says Brandon Klugman, campaign coordinator for Vote16USA, a movement to lower the voting age in cities around the country. “And 16 is a much better time to adopt the habit than 18. At 18, people are in transition. At 16, they’re more stable, usually living at home, and can participate in the community they’ve been in most of their lives.”
Sixteen year olds can already vote in several countries, including Austria, Germany, Brazil and Scotland, where they cast their first ballots during the debate over separating from the United Kingdom. Closer to home, after Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Maryland, also lowered the voting age to 16. A youth-led movement in San Francisco is taking off, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed the idea of a lower voting age (a move which bolstered conservatives’ contention that this is a partisan idea). Almost half of states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in the primary if they’ll turn 18 before the general election.
The results of lowering the voting age could be monumental: If high schoolers were able to vote, might politicians be more inclined to make sure schools are fairly-funded?
Critics of the idea are skeptical that 16-year-olds can make informed decisions in the voting booth. (Because, well, 16-year olds make poor decisions about a lot of things.) And it’s true that adolescent brains have not fully matured. But what goes on behind anyone’s curtain? Do we really think turning 18 makes a person suddenly civically mature? In the United States, we trust 16-year-olds behind the wheel of a car, decide that 18-year-olds are mature enough to go to war, and think that it is only at 21 that a human being can handle a beer. These are arbitrary designations based not on actual human ability, but on a community standard—in Europe, for example, the drinking age is 16 in some places and 18 most everywhere else. And studies from Austria and elsewhere have found that the quality of teenager’s voting choices were equal to that of older citizens.
“I really think that given the right to vote, youth will be more accountable for their actions,” says Abigail Koerner, an 11th grader in Washington, D.C., working to secure the vote for her peers. “Teenagers have babies and take care of them and raise them to adulthood. Teenagers work and save money. Teenagers have responsibilities and are involved in society. Teenagers spend months applying to colleges and making educated decisions about where to go. Critics should see that youth will take this seriously the same way youth consider other responsibilities.”
In Philadelphia, unlike in Maryland, a change to the voting age for municipal elections may require a change in the state election code, allowing Philadelphia to create its own age restrictions. It is a fight that would be worth it, if only for one reason: We are desperate to jump start voting. Last November, in the election to determine who will likely lead this city for the next eight years, just 25 percent of eligible voters came out to the polls in Philadelphia. The highest percentage of those voters were 50-64; 18 to 29 year olds made the poorest showing. Nationally in November, a record low 36 percent of eligible voters came out to the polls, according to Generation Citizen, a youth civics education program that works with Vote16USA. Among 18 to 29 year olds, only 19.9 percent voted, the lowest turnout ever.
With civics education on a decades-long decline, that number is not going to change on its own. That’s why organizations like Generation Citizen and the Rendell Center for Civics Education are working to bring civics learning back in to schools and communities. Klugman says lowering the voting age is one way to boost civics education: If high school juniors are expected to vote, then their schools will need to teach them about how their vote works. And the results could be monumental: If high schoolers were able to vote, might politicians be more inclined to make sure schools are fairly-funded?
Voting is direct action, and has been shown to create more civic involvement. Civic education goes deeper; it teaches students how to get involved beyond election —from writing letters to representatives in Congress, to volunteering on campaigns, to educating peers and even parent about the importance of issues like education. This, research has shown, is not only how you create a nation of civic-minded citizens. It’s how you create a Democracy.
Header Photo: Flick/Phil Roeder