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In Defense of Lowering the Voting Age

In 2016, voters in Berkeley, California, overwhelmingly favored lowering the voting age for school board elections to sixteen. San Francisco came close to passing a similar measure, Proposition F, which would have lowered the voting age to sixteen for all local elections. Unofficial results indicate it lost by approximately 52%–48%. This close outcome suggests that advocates may continue to push the measure in the future, with a fairly strong chance of success once voters are better educated about its merits. Lowering the voting age is by no means a radical idea. The Maryland municipalities of Takoma Park and Hyattsville recently lowered the voting age to sixteen for their own elections. Turnout among sixteen– and seventeen‐year‐olds has been relatively robust, strengthening the democratic process in these cities. Moreover, several countries, including Brazil, Argentina, and Scotland, allow sixteen‐year‐olds to vote.

This Essay outlines the various policy arguments in favor of lowering the voting age to sixteen. Part I presents a very brief history of the voting age in U.S. elections. It notes that setting the voting age at eighteen is, in many ways, a historical accident, so lowering the voting age for local elections does not cut against historical norms. Part II explains that there are no constitutional barriers to local jurisdictions lowering the voting age for their own elections. Part III highlights the benefits to democracy and representation that lowering the voting age will engender. Turning eighteen represents a tumultuous time for most young adults as they leave home either to enter the workforce or go off to college. Sixteen, by contrast, is a period of relative stability when young people are invested in their communities and are learning about civic engagement in school. Lowering the voting age can, therefore, create a habit of voting and increase overall turnout in later years. Finally, Part IV presents psychological studies demonstrating that, by age sixteen, individuals possess the cognitive capabilities required to perform an act that takes forethought and deliberation like voting. That is, sixteen‐year‐olds are as good as, say, forty‐year‐olds at making the deliberative decisions necessary for democratic participation. Part IV also refutes the claim that lowering the voting age will “create” additional votes for parents, as prior experience shows that young people do not simply follow their parents in the voting booth.

In sum, lowering the voting age is a sound mechanism to improve our elections. It brings additional, competent individuals with a stake in electoral outcomes into the democratic process and guarantees them a voice.

In the current political environment, reform advocates should focus their energies particularly on local measures that will increase voter participation—as that is where they are likely to succeed. These local successes can breed statewide reforms once people see the rules working well in local elections.