Lowering the Voting Age – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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From the 1990s to the present, elected officials in several US states have made unsuccessful attempts to lower the voting age to 16, and sometimes even younger. [1] Student activism in the wake of the Feb. 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, brought new life to the debate about letting younger people vote in elections. [2]

Currently, Berkeley, California, and a handful of cities in Maryland allow 16-year-olds to participate in local elections. [2] San Francisco, California, residents will vote in Nov. 2020 whether to allow 16 year olds to vote. If passed, San Francisco would be the first major US city to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections.[51]

Internationally, about a dozen countries allow citizens to vote at age 16, sometimes with conditions such as being employed or married, including Argentina, Austria, Brazil and Ecuador. [48]

A constitutional amendment to lower the US voting age to 16 would require approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures (38 states). [3] Alternatively, state legislatures could pass laws allowing younger people to vote in their states. [4]

Until the 1970s, the voting age in America was 21. [43] A debate over lowering it to 18 began during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt decreased the military draft age to 18. [44] President Eisenhower called for citizens ages 18 to 21 to be included in the political process in his 1954 State of the Union address. [44] But lawmakers didn’t take action until marches and demonstrations drew attention to the fact that young people who were being drafted to fight in Vietnam did not have the ability to vote in most states. [43]

Congress proposed the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1971, which stated, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” [45] The ratification process, which required approval from 38 states, was completed in about three months, the shortest amount of time of any amendment in US history. [46]

Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

Pro 1

16-year-olds are just as knowledgeable about civics and have the same ability to make good voting choices as older voters.

A study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that, “On measures of civic knowledge, political skills, political efficacy, and tolerance, 16-year-olds, on average, are obtaining scores similar to those of adults… Adolescents in this age range are developmentally ready to vote.” [7]

Scientists believe that “cold cognition” skills, those used to make the kind of informed, well-thought out choices needed in voting, are solidly established in 16-year-olds. [8]

Austria lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007. According to Markus Wagner, PhD, Social Sciences Professor at the University of Vienna, and coauthors, studies of subsequent elections show “the quality of these [younger] citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well.” [9]

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Pro 2

Lowering the voting age to 16 increases voter turnout and develops lifelong voting habits.

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developed countries. [18] A person who votes in one election has a 13% greater probability of voting in a future election. [19] Researchers say that people who participate in elections when they first reach voting age are likely to develop the habit of voting, and those who don’t are more likely to remain nonvoters. [20][21]

16-year-olds are learning about government and civics in high school, and the structured environment would lead to higher turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds as teachers and parents help them overcome typical obstacles for first-time voters, such as the registration process and finding their polling places. [9][22][23] By contrast, many 18-year-olds are in a time of transition, making them less likely to participate in elections. [21][23]

Involving young people in voting can have a “trickle up” effect that mobilizes their parents and other adults in their households to vote, increasing the overall voter turnout rate. [24][25] Turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds in Takoma Park, Maryland, the first US municipality to lower the voting age for local elections, was double that of eligible voters 18 and older. [26]

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Pro 3

At age 16, people should have a voice in the laws that affect their lives and a stake in the future of their country.

A US Senate report cited student activism and protests as reasons for lowering the voting age to 18 in the 1970s during the Vietnam War: “We must channel these energies into our political system and give young people the real opportunity to influence our society in a peaceful and constructive manner.” [33]

Students today live under threats to their futures such as school shootings and climate change, and they deserve to have influence over their elected officials beyond the protests they’ve organized. [34] Sofie Whitney, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, says, “If 16-year-old students are old enough to be affected by the laws, and realize that there is a problem, then they should have the power to help change it.” [35]

The age of 16 is when people’s relationship with the law changes as they often start driving, working, and paying taxes. [36][37] [49]Further, in most states, 16-year-olds can be emancipated from their parents and live independently. [38]

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Con 1

Kids under the age of 18 aren't mature enough to participate in elections.

Experts say that 16- and 17-year-olds demonstrate lower interest in politics, have less political knowledge, and lack the experience needed to participate in elections. [11][10][12]

Social scientists Tak Wing Chan, PhD, and Matthew Clayton, DPhil, say that 16- and 17-year-olds wouldn’t be competent voters because “research in neuroscience suggests that the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is still undergoing major reconstruction and development during the teenage years,” and added that the prefrontal cortex is what “enables us to weigh dilemmas, balance trade-offs and, in short, make reasonable decisions in politics.” [11]

People under 18 are subject to different labor, contract, and criminal responsibility laws, and aren’t allowed to join the military without parental consent or serve on a jury. [13][14][15][16] Most are still living at home and would be influenced by the voting choices of their parents. [17]

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Con 2

The 18-29 age group has extremely low voter turnout numbers, suggesting that people aren't ready to vote until later in life.

Only 12.5% of 18-year-olds participated in the 2014 midterm election, compared to 42% of the general population. [27] According to the United States Elections Project’s analysis of US Census Bureau data, just 16% of eligible voters ages 18-29 voted in the 2014 election, compared to 30% for ages 30-44, 43% for 45-59, and 55% for age 60 and up. [28][29] Over the last 30 years, voter turnout for 18- to 29-year-olds has never exceeded 21% in a midterm election. [29][30]

Only 23% of students scored at or above the “proficient” level on the last National Assessment of Educational Progress test of civics knowledge and skills. [31]

David Davenport, JD, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said, “My concern is if 16-year-olds were allowed to vote on any kind of broad scale, what we’d actually be doing is bringing the least politically informed, the least politically experienced, the least mature in terms of making long-term judgments and trade-offs, directly into and potentially affecting our voter turnout and results.” [32]

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Con 3

The vast majority of Americans of all ages and political views agree that 16-year-olds should not be given the right to vote.

A 2019 Hill-HarrisX poll found that 84% of registered voters opposed lowering the voting age to 16. The poll found every age group was against 16-year-olds voting, with the most support found among those under 35 where still only 39% were in favor. [47]

A different survey found 8% support for lowering the voting age to 16; 45% want to keep it at 18; and 46% would like to raise it back to age 21. [40]

A Twitter poll by WJLA, the ABC news affiliate in Washington, DC, found just 18% support for a proposed bill to lower the voting age to 16 in the District of Columbia, compared to 77% against. [41] The local NBC news affiliate ran a similar poll online in which 83% of participants were against the bill. [42]

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Discussion Questions

  1. Should the voting age be lowered to 16? Why or why not?
  2. Would lowering the voting age increase voter turnout? Explain your answer?
  3. Would lowering the voting age lead to increase civic knowledge and participation? Why or why not?
1.National Youth Rights Association, "The Movement to Lower the Voting Age: A History," youthrights.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
2.Joshua Douglas, "Parkland Students Show Why 16-Year-Olds Should Be Able to Vote," cnn.com, Feb. 20, 2018
3.National Archives, "Constitutional Amendment Process," archives.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
4.David Davenport, "No, We Shouldn't Lower the Voting Age to 16," forbes.com, May 25, 2016
5.Fenit Nirappil, "D.C. Council Declines to Take up Bill to Lower Voting Age to 16," washingtonpost.com, Nov. 14, 2018
6.Generation Citizen, "Lowering the Voting Age for Local Elections in 2017 and Beyond," vote16usa.org, Jan. 2017
7.Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins, "American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Jan. 2011
8.Laurence Steinberg, "Why We Should Lower the Voting Age to 16," nytimes.com, Mar. 2, 2018
9.Markus Wagner, et al., "Voting at 16: Turnout and the Quality of Vote Choice," Electoral Studies, June 2012
10.Mori Social Research Institute, "Young People's Attitudes Towards Politics," ipsos.com, July 2003
11.Tak Wing Chan and Matthew Clayton, "Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to Sixteen? Normative and Empirical Considerations," Political Studies, Oct. 2006
12.Robert Tracinski, "Why It's Time to Raise the Voting Age Back to 21," thefederalist.com, Feb. 27, 2018
13.US Department of Labor, "Workers under 18," dol.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
14.US Legal, "Contract by a Minor," contracts.uslegal.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
15.United States Courts, "Juror Qualifications," uscourts.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
16.Today's Military, "Review Military Entrance Requirements," todaysmilitary.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
17.Damian Medina, "Why California Should Definitely Not Lower Voting Age to 17," sandiegouniontribune.com, June 23, 2017
18.Drew Desilver, "U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout," pewresearch.org, May 21, 2018
19.Kevin Denny and Orla Doyle, "Does Voting History Matter? Analysing Persistence in Turnout," jstor.org, Jan. 2009
20.Daniel Hart and James Youniss, Renewing Democracy in Young America, 2017
21.Mark N. Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945, Apr. 2004
22.Eric Plutzer, "Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood," American Political Science Review, Mar. 2002
23.Eva Zeglovits and Julian Aichholzer, "Are People More Inclined to Vote at 16 Than at 18? Evidence for the First-Time Voting Boost among 16- to 25-Year-Olds in Austria," Journal of Elections Public Opinion and Parties, Oct. 2014
24.Amy Linimon and Mark Joslyn, "Trickle Up Political Socialization: The Impact of Kids Voting USA on Voter Turnout in Kansas," State Politics and Policy Quarterly, Mar. 2002
25.Jens Olav Dahlgaard, "The Surprising Consequence of Lowering the Voting Age,” washingtonpost.com, Mar. 1, 2018
26.National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, "Solid Turnout for 16 and 17 Year Old Voters in Takoma Park, MD," naspa.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
27.United States Census Bureau, "Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2014: Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2014," census.gov, July 2015
28.Emily Guskin, "Are Young Voters Going to Sway the Midterms? New Data Shows That's Not Very Likely.," washingtonpost.com, Aug. 1, 2018
29.United States Elections Project, "Voter Turnout Demographics," electproject.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
30.Civic Youth, "National Voter Turnout Figures - Civic Youth," civicyouth.org (accessed Oct. 26, 2018)
31.National Assessment of Educational Progress, "2014 Civics Assessment," nationsreportcard.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
32.Devyn Rafols-Nuñez, "Push to Lower the Voting Age Gains Traction across the States," nbcnews.com, June 24, 2018
33.Justia, Jolicoeur v. Mihaly, law.justia.com, 1971
34.Washington Post Editorial Board, "Give a Lower Voting Age a Try," washingtonpost.com, Apr. 13, 2018
35.Rainesford Stauffer, "These Teens Marched for Gun Laws. They Were Just Getting Warmed Up.," thinkprogress.org, May 29, 2018
36.Eric Zorn, "It's Only Logical — 16-Year-Olds Should Have the Right to Vote," chicagotribune.com, Apr. 26, 2018
37.Hannah Grabenstein, "Should 16-Year-Olds Be Allowed to Vote?," pbs.org, Apr. 20, 2018
38.FindLaw, "Emancipation of Minors Basics," family.findlaw.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
39.Public Religion Research Institute, "American Democracy in Crisis: Civic Engagement, Young Adult Activism, and the 2018 Midterm Elections," prri.org, Oct. 11, 2018
40.Lehigh Valley Opinion, "Poll: Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16? Raised to 21?," lehighvalleylive.com, Feb. 27, 2018
41.WJLA Staff, "A New Bill Is Being Proposed in D.C. That Would Lower Voting Age to 16," wjla.com, Apr. 10, 2018
42.WJLA Web Staff, "Bill Lowering Voting Age to 16 Proposed in D.C.," mynbc15.com, Apr. 18, 2018
43.Jocelyn Benson and Michael T. Morley, "Common Interpretation: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment," constitutioncenter.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
44.History.com Editors, "The 26th Amendment," history.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
45.National Archives, "Document for March 23rd: 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," archives.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
46.NCC Staff, "Just Which State Ratified the 26th Amendment?," constitutioncenter.org, June 30, 2017
47.The Hill, "
Poll: Americans Overwhelmingly Reject Lowering Voting Age to 16," thehill.com, May 3, 2019
48. Maggie Astor, "16-Year-Olds Want a Vote. Fifty Years Ago, So Did 18-Year-Olds.," nytimes.com, May 19, 2019
49. James A. Anderson, "Why We Should Lower the Voting Age to 16," nextcity.org, July 20, 2020
50. Lauren Young, "These Teens Are Leading the Fight to Lower the Voting Age," teenvougue.com, Aug. 13, 2020
51.Celine Castronuovo, "San Francisco Considers Changing Local Voting Age to 16," thehill.com Sep. 12, 2020