They turn out at the polls, and turn into lifelong voters. City by city, young activists are working the grassroots to make their voices count.
Memo to the U.S. Electorate: Ready or not, it’s time to make room.
A legion of 16- and 17-year-olds vies for a place at your nearby polling station. In several cities around the country, they’re already voting in local elections.
A wealth of data supports the wisdom of enfranchising young voters — turnout is high in this age group, and neuroscience suggests their brains are primed for calculated decision-making.
Countries that have implemented age-16 voting before now have found that cultivating good civic behaviors early leads to long-term engagement, both for young voters and for those around them.
These young voters might also hold the remedy to ailments that beset U.S. democracy, among them disillusionment, apathy, partisanship, and cynical frustration with government.
What’s more, lowering the voting age may be the key to a smoother transition, as U.S. demographics shift and society becomes both older and more diverse at a time when we face a future when hot-button issues such as climate change, racial justice and economic inequality dominate civic life and debate.
Additionally, enfranchising young votes gives them a direct sense of how they can participate in the system; in fact, the track record so far shows that 16- and 17-year-olds take the right to vote seriously and are willing to work to get it.
Already, the age-16 suffrage movement has support in national circles, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to members of Congress, newspaper editorial boards and local officials. Still, It remains very much a grassroots campaign aiming to change voting laws city by city and town by town with the support of activist teen groups and national nonprofits such as Generation Citizen and the National Youth Rights Association.
The young would-be voters who have joined the cause are persistent, resourceful, and patient as they work to shake up the system from within. Obstacles including bureaucratic labyrinths, an unprecedented pandemic, and even trenchant partisanship have slowed them, but not for long.
Take Caleb Deberry. A 17-year-old high school senior from Chicago, Deberry heads an Illinois chapter of Vote16USA, a nationwide advocacy initiative organized by Generation Citizen that promotes age-16 suffrage across the country. Deberry’s group faces steep trekking in its effort to lower the age requirement for voting in Chicago, and ultimately the rest of Illinois. State law prohibits the city from making changes to its charter — either by referendum or by city council vote — that would make lowering the voting age possible.
Working from his family’s apartment in the North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park, Deberry spends on average 20 hours a week on a variety of tasks.
He regularly works the phones to recruit members for chapters downstate in Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, and Carbondale. He has spoken with elected officials such as Representative Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Representative Kelly Cassidy and the policy advisor to Representative Ayanna Pressley. (In 2019, Pressley introduced a measure in the House that would have lowered the federal voting age to 16.) Deberry has met with former Illinois governor Pat Quinn to elicit his support, and participated in a forum in September 2019 where high school students questioned Democratic Party presidential candidates.
Deberry credits his poise and enthusiasm to working with his mother, Ebony, an organizer with a branch of the group People’s Action, a political group that has stumped for housing, economic justice, environmental issues, and more equitable distribution of Chicago education funding. During a phone interview with Deberry, in fact, his mom can be heard working the phones in the background.
“She always took me to meetings when I was 11 or 12,” he says. “I was always interested in going, taking notes, canvassing, or helping at the phone bank.” Deberry says he, too, is passionate about the same causes and can now draw from his experience in public speaking and even setting budgets that he learned alongside his mother.
The ideal Deberry envisions is more than wishful thinking. Age-16 suffrage has gained grassroots momentum in recent years, and as the country has witnessed with the ongoing racial justice marches of 2020. The deep engagement of young people persists in spite of the social distancing and challenges to community organizing that the pandemic has demanded.
“In the past three or four years, we’ve seen a groundswell in the level of attention the issue is getting,” says Brandon Klugman, campaign manager for Vote16USA. “That goes along with an increase in youth activism among 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who are making clear that they not only have a stake in politics, but that they’re equally reading, willing and able to take part in choosing government officials.”
At the same time, there’s a sense that the teens who have gravitated to the cause feel they have to earn the privilege of voting and to prove to older voters that they, too, deserve a turn at the ballot box. “Within the movement, there’s the feeling that we have to persuade the public with a positive view of young people’s capacity and worth,” says Brian Conner, the president of the National Youth Rights Association, another group that pushes for age-16 voting eligibility.
In the history of voting, age ain't nothin' but a number
Although white males spent the first 150 years of this country’s history endeavoring to limit voting based on land ownership, sex and race, a minimum age for casting a ballot did not emerge as a point of contention until nearly the mid-20th century.
The voting age had been set at 21 for reasons of convenience, to keep to a precedent originally set by British law during the colonial era, says University of Kentucky law professor Joseph Douglas. In England, 21 had been the age of majority since the time of Chivalry; at that age young men became eligible for their first suit of armor and could, as a result, qualify for knighthood.
Talk of lowering the voting age in the U.S. began around the time of the Second World War, when, in 1942, the federal government lowered the draft age from 21 to 18 to build up the armed services at a time of escalating global conflict. After the war, Kentucky and Georgia changed the voting age for their state elections to 18.
The movement picked up real steam in the 1960s, as increasing numbers of young people protested the Vietnam War. Citizens who were old enough to risk their lives on the battlefield, the argument went, deserved a say in how the government was run.
The slogan “Old Enough to Die, Old Enough to Vote” became a popular rallying cry. By March 1971, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18 and sent the amendment to the states for ratification.
Just 100 days later, the required three-fourths of all states ratified the amendment, and in July 1971, vote-18 became the 26th Amendment to the Constitution.
Today’s age-16 suffrage movement has interesting parallels with the successful 26th Amendment campaign. Many of the original arguments against allowing 18-year-olds to vote — that they’re too immature, they don’t understand the issues — are wielded today to stymie efforts to lower the voting age further.
It’s important to note that the 26th Amendment does not expressly prohibit states or local governments from setting a lower voting age.
In fact, its main proviso states, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
So why grant 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote?
Let’s run down the reasons:
Because they can work, drive, and pay taxes like adults
Any argument in favor of lowering the voting age starts with the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds are already seen as adults in several official ways. Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia let teens pre-register to vote at 16, while an additional nine states have opened pre-registration to 17-year-olds. By age 16, teens have the right to drive in every state of the union and can secure a license everywhere but in New Jersey, where they must wait until 17.
Then there’s the matter of taxation without direct representation for the sizable number of 16- and 17-year-olds who work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 229,000 youths between the ages of 16 and 17 work full-time, and another 1.46 million work part-time. Minors now must file tax returns if they earn more than the standard deduction.
Within the criminal justice system, the law frequently treats mid-teens as adults, too. The legal age of sexual consent is 16 in 31 states, and age 17 in another six states. And according to the Juvenile Law Center, every year 250,000 youth are tried and sentenced as adults in the U.S.
Because young brains are optimized to make voting decisions
For those who question whether 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to assume the responsibility of casting a ballot, psychological studies seem to support the premise that teens of this age have the capacity to mull over the issues and scrutinize candidates on the way to making a decision. And they perform those functions as well as 20, 40, or 60 year-olds.
The basis lies in cognitive studies that examine our abilities to gather and process information depending on our environment and prevailing factors. So far, results show that 16-year-olds have fully formed peak abilities of “cold cognition” — the power to reach deliberate, measured decisions in which humans take time to weigh information.
In other words, the very skills required to decide on a candidate and cast a vote. The argument is that the cognitive powers required in knowing when and where to vote, and taking the time to read up on issues and learn about candidates, falls well within the skills that 16- and 17-year-olds have developed.
Arguably, teens get a bad rap for more impetuous thinking, or “hot cognition” skills, that shape impulsive, spur-of-the-moment decision-making under pressure. Those abilities don’t fully mature on average until age 21. And while that’s a drawback during emotional or stressful times, this type of thinking doesn’t factor into ballot-box choices.
Research backs the fact that mid-teens can think over their preferences, analyze self-interest, and ultimately come to sensible conclusions about voting. A 2012 study in Austria, where 16- and 17-year-olds have had the vote since 2007, found that that voters in this age group were just as likely to be able to describe their ideological leanings and to select candidates that reflected those inclinations as older voters.
What’s more, surveys there have shown a marked increase in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who described themselves as interested or very interested in politics; those numbers doubled from 31 percent in 2004 to 62 percent in 2008.
Because voter turnout is higher for this age group
Beyond Austria, a handful of other democracies around the globe have already lowered the voting age to 16 over the last three decades. In Brazil and Argentina, 16-year-olds can choose to vote in elections at all levels, while everyone from 18 to 70 is required to do so. Several states in Germany have permitted 16-year-olds to vote in local elections since the 1990s. The Scottish parliament, meanwhile, unanimously decided to lower the region’s voting age to 16 on the eve of its 2014 independence referendum. Seventeen year-olds can vote in Greece and participate in local elections in Israel. Croatia, Ecuador, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia allow 16-year-olds to cast ballots in elections at various levels, although in some places enfranchisement is conditional on being married or employed.
Austria was the first European Union nation to set a voting age of 16 for most of its sovereign elections, and as such, has more than 10 years of election data to analyze. Research from 2014 shows that, in Vienna specifically, turnout for 16- and 17-year-old first-time voters was 64 percent, significantly higher than the 56 percent turnout for 18- to 20-year-old first-time voters.
More encouraging data comes from Takoma Park, one of four Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., to open voting to 16-year-olds. A 2013 city council vote made Takoma Park the first U.S. city to lower the voting age. Credit goes to Timothy Male and his council colleagues. He says constituents had asked him to work up an activity to interest teens on voting, civic responsibility, and the workings of local government.
The idea was to boost participation in local elections, where turnout figures had been mired in the teens for a decade, crossing the 20 percent mark just once. The low figures were something of an embarrassment given Takoma’s proximity to the capitol and the fact that so many residents worked in government.
Male says he took up a Google search to brainstorm and landed immediately on Scotland and its decision to open voting to 16-year-olds in 2011. He and a colleague researched the issue and a similar move in Vienna during the naughts. The research led to a charter amendment Male proposed to the council in 2013, which won approval. Maryland’s government allows localities the leeway to make voting decisions autonomously; once Takoma Park approved age-16 voting, nearby Hyattsville quickly followed suit.
Targeting the city council for approval seemed an expedient way for Male to make the change at the time, but Male’s tactic has become something of a blueprint for age-16 suffrage proponents.
Proposals to win by referendum have stalled a number of times across the country, often owing to the reluctance of a wide swath of older voters to expand the rolls to teens. Male says targeting city councils give teens time to prove their worthiness, by boosting turnout and getting involved in council or school board meetings.
And young Takoma Park voters have proven themselves. In the years following the amendment, 16- and 17-year-olds participated in municipal elections in numbers that far surpassed overall turnout, although the numbers themselves were less than overwhelming. In 2013, 44 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds voted, compared to 10 percent of overall registered voters. In 2015, 45 percent of the teens cast a vote, compared to 21 percent overall.
The decidedly lackluster voting record that 18- to 20-year-olds have displayed in recent years can be attributed to any number of factors — they’re possibly attending school out of town and didn’t make absentee arrangements, or they are simply caught up with working, bill paying and other newfound responsibilities.
Rutgers University psychology professor Daniel Hart argues the reverse: that 16- and 17-year-olds are more deeply rooted in their communities, typically where they live with parents or immediate family. And they are likely to associate that sense of community belonging with a personal obligation to participate.
Make the voting ritual habitual: Young voters practice lifelong civic engagement
Ask any parent nagging kids to floss daily or pick up dirty laundry, and they’ll tell you that instilling good habits early makes those habits more likely to stick. The same goes for voting.
Most citizens are habitual voters or habitual nonvoters, and the reasoning goes that the earlier you instill an ethos to vote in young people, the more likely they are to continue that pattern as they age.
Beyond young voters practicing good civic habits, Assistant Professor of Political Science Jens Olav Dahlgaard, of Copenhagen Business School, analyzed Denmark election data and, in 2018, identified a bonus “trickle up” phenomenon — families that had young, committed voters living at home saw a boost in turnout among the parents as well.
Hart and others recommend steps to expand civics education as a way to promote a lifelong sense of voting as a societal duty.
Look to Culver City, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, for evidence of this. Piper Samuels, Vivien Adler and Marley Leonard have lobbied the local city council to put a measure to lower the voting age on the ballot. The group has canvassed the school, sought the endorsement of clubs at Culver City High and joined a protest of 2,500 students that marched in support of racial justice.
The three students, now seniors and juniors, say their high school’s curriculum includes classes such as civics, government, and American history, but that their organizing work adds a real-life component that makes what they have learned that much more meaningful.
“If we succeed, we could see expanding civics education in our school,” says Samuels. “One way might be linking what we study to civic engagement somehow.”
Indeed, it’s the mechanics of securing the right to vote that also catalyzes engagement. Working with city governments to implement these measures gives mid-teens a front-row seat to the inner workings of local democracy that no civics class could hope to replicate.
Sadie Fleig is a recent high school graduate in Berkeley who, at 16, started working in political groups pushing to lower the voting age. Fleig, now 18, is eligible to vote under current law, but she still works for the cause as the head of a local chapter of Vote16USA.
In 2016, thanks in part to a lobbying push by Vote16USA, the Berkeley city council approved a measure to allow 16- and 17-year-old citizens to join the existing electorate at the polls and vote in local school board elections.
But four years after the measure passed, a series of administrative snags has since prevented 16- and 17-year-olds from casting ballots. For example, the Alameda County Board of Elections needs updated software to track registrations for a wave of about 2,000 voters that this expansion will add to the rolls. Will that update happen in time for November 2020, in the middle of a pandemic that, at this writing, has resurged in California? New poll watchers may have to be hired, and the city would need to compose and print new mail-in ballots for 16- and 17-year-olds who request them. Among other logistic questions are how to set up polling booths specifically for the younger citizens who can only vote in one election out of many happening on the same day.
Fleig and her fellow activists have not shied away from what amounts to a crash course in practical politics. Last year, they petitioned the Berkeley Unified School District take a more active role in resolving the matter by retaining a lawyer to press their case. Although hearings and meetings continue, progress has stalled, given the COVID-19 crisis and an upcoming election season that will have to make allowances for social distancing.
“It is very frustrating for them,” says Margaret Prinzing, the counsel the school board has retained. “I’m still very impressed how committed and motivated the students have been — they have had a presence at the meetings and I plan on making more of an effort to involve them going forward.”
Far from losing hope, teens like Fleig see the struggle to win the vote as an all-too-real, hands-on experience in government that American high schools could never match: How to square up ideals, civic action, and finally agency.
“There really haven’t been any groups pushing back against this, but in many ways since there really isn’t a basic framework before us,” Fleig says. “We’ve had to try to figure out the process of getting this implemented by ourselves.” In the meantime, Fleig and other members of the local Vote 16 USA chapter have created a non-partisan primary guide for voters.
The best prospects are local, rather than national
Developments on the national stage show the push for age-16 suffrage is gaining slow traction across the country.
The movement has a few high-profile supporters aside from Pelosi, including Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Democratic primary candidates Andrew Yang and Senator Bernie Sanders.
A sweeping, constitutional change affecting elections from presidential ballots down to local school boards seems a ways off for now. Pressley’s 2019 amendment to lower the federal voting age to 16 was defeated in the House with 126 yes votes (125 Democrats and 1 Republican), and 305 no votes.
Politicians, pundits, academicians and others both pro and con agree that securing the support of two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures is unlikely in the near future.
What lies ahead this fall?
A San Francisco referendum comes before voters again this November proposing 16 as the voting age in municipal elections. (A similar proposal on the 2016 ballot, called Proposition F, narrowly lost with a 48 percent “yes” vote.) Across the East Bay, Oakland voters will decide whether residents 16 and older can participate in school-board elections. Nine towns in Massachusetts have recommended allowing 16-year-olds the vote in local elections, and have now pressed the state legislature to make constitutional modifications that would allow that to happen without requiring approval of the assembly and the governor. And 17 states, including Illinois, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Maryland, Connecticut and the District of Columbia, already let 17-year-olds vote in presidential or congressional primaries, provided they will have turned 18 on or before the next general election.
Most activists believe that change will have the greatest momentum locally. Male says aiming for smaller gains — town by town, with city councils as a primary target — is the more practical approach, based on numbers and time.
A vote-16 city council campaign typically would require a simple majority of councilmembers to vote in favor — usually five, six or seven total. These are officials with more time to devote to, and ruminate over, policy matters.
Even city-wide referenda often run into obstacles of scale; it’s harder to win over thousands or tens of thousand of voters, each of whom may spend a minimum amount of time absorbing any one issue out of potentially 10 or more ballot questions.
See the aforementioned Prop F in San Francisco; and a similar ballot measure was defeated in Golden, Colorado, in 2018.
Another potentially limiting factor is the balance between state and local power, as codified in each state’s law. To date, the vote-16 campaign has logged its greatest successes in Maryland and California, where municipalities have the leeway to approve local election laws — what Joshua Douglas calls “home rule.”
Those two states’ constitutions make it possible for cities or local jurisdictions to amend their charters in order to accommodate 16- and 17-year-olds at the ballot box.
Even so, bringing that about is accomplished in different ways according to local laws. In some cases, all that’s required is a majority of the city council to vote in favor. In others, a charter amendment must first be passed by the city council, then brought before voters for approval in an election.
Other states show promise, too. According to Vote16USA, laws in Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., also grant localities the autonomy to institute age-16 voting.
Another nine states offer similar opportunities, but the paths aren’t so clear-cut: while states do offer municipalities some latitude to modify charters and set their own voting age, there is precedent that would require additional research to determine how age-16 suffrage could most effectively move forward.
Ultimately, lowering the voting age is good for representative democracy
Supporters of a lower voting age say there may be longer-term societal benefits to opening the ballot to mid-teens.
These include training the government’s ears to a wider range of constituents and viewpoints, particularly at a time when the country not only faces significant demographic shifts, but reckons with critical existential issues of racial justice, climate change and deepening economic inequality.
Two U.S. population trends underscore this. Americans are getting older, and more ethnically diverse.
A gap has opened between young and old at the ballot box. Over the last 50 years the country’s population has skewed older. In 1960, 36 percent of the country was under 18; that number dropped to roughly 25 percent by 2010.
And the data shows that younger and older voters have differing preferences; 2016 exit polls showed that those 45 and older preferred Donald Trump by 8 percentage points, while those 44 and younger chose Hillary Clinton by 14 percentage points.
Younger voters may also feel disaffected. By some estimates, the median age of voters who participated in 2016 elections was 52, and as high as 57 for participants in the 2014 midterms.
A 2016 study of mayoral election turnout in 50 U.S. cities found that the median age of residents in the average large city is 42. But the median voting age in city mayoral elections was 57. In the likes of Dallas, Las Vegas, and Miami it can range from 62 to 68.
Hart says as the balance between young and old citizens has shifted both in society and in the electorate, the divergence of their respective priorities has become starker. He points to data collected by American National Election Studies (ANES) that shows that younger constituents tend to favor federal spending on education more so than voters between ages 65 and 74, while those older citizens are more likely to support Social Security spending. Some balance between spending priorities, notes Hart, would be the preferable outcome — for example, government spending that enabled younger members of society to boost their education and earning power, which in turn would situate them to contribute more to Social Security coffers.
Ongoing demographic shifts will have an equally profound effect on the electorate. Generation Z is far more racially and ethnically diverse than either Millennials or Boomers. By current projections, white Americans will become an ethnic minority in the 2040s, while Latino, Black, and Asian Americans will make up 45 percent or more of the population.
Hart argues that one way to bring greater balance between different groups and generations is to include younger voters, who are more likely to keep active at the ballot and as a result more engaged in political processes.
“There is a sociological balance to be struck,” says Hart. “We have big issues, among them the biggest wealth transfer of the last 50 years to older people, or the frustration that younger citizens have about environmental issues.” Inviting 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, he reasons, will give them a way to express their wishes and to underscore concerns.
“At the moment, we feel hopeful, especially to see young people so active in social movements,” says Hart. “The bottom line is that we must see 16- and 17-year-olds as people who have grown up with us and likely share our basic values. Essentially they are us. And because they have all the requisite capacities to be citizens, it’s unfair to disenfranchise them.”
This story was produced with support from the Solutions Journalism Network’s Renewing Democracy initiative.
This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by Next City on July 20, 2020.