To truly recognize voting as a fundamental right and address the low voter turnout that currently plagues young voters, FairVote supports lowering the voting age to 16. Empirical evidence suggests that the earlier in life a voter casts their first ballot, the more likely they are to develop voting as a habit. While one’s first reaction might be to question the ability of young voters to cast a meaningful vote, research shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters. It is time that they are empowered to put that knowledge to good use at the polls, and make voting a habit in their formative years. These young citizens are old enough to drive, work without restrictions on their hours, and pay taxes--they should also have a voice in their local government.
FairVote has served as a thought leader and catalyst for lowering the voting age to 16, playing a critical role at the local level in Takoma Park, MD, which became the first U.S. city to lower the voting age in 2013, and later Hyattsville, MD, which followed in 2015. We continue to support emerging efforts at the local level by providing resources and advice to local reformers through our Promote Our Vote project.
At first glance, many assume that 16-year-olds are unable to make mature and informed decisions about voting, that they will not turn out to vote, or that they will just vote the way their parents tell them to. However, research indicates that all three of those assumptions are untrue.
Reasons to lower the voting age include the following:
Extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds is consistent with the fact that turning 16 has special significance in our culture. At age 16, citizens can drive, pay taxes, and for the first time work without any restriction on hours. It’s also a matter of fairness: when unable to vote until turning 18, some citizens won’t have a chance to vote for their mayor until they are almost 22. Long-time backers of a lower voting age, like the National Youth Rights Association, make this fairness argument as well.
This change has worked in practice. Two Maryland cities have successfully extended municipal voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds. Several nations, including Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom have extended voting rights to 16-year-olds for national, regional, or local elections. Additionally, more than 15 states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries to nominate candidates for president, Congress, and governor.
Research indicates that there is a “trickle up” effect on civic participation. When 16- and 17-year-olds engage in civics, conversations about politics and local issues are brought to the dinner table. Parents and family members are engaged in civic life through the 16- and 17-year-olds in their household, with a positive impact on voter turnout for people of all ages.
A detailed study of voters' ages and habits in Denmark found that 18-year-olds were far more likely to cast their "first vote" than 19-year-olds, and that every month of extra age in those years resulted in a decline in "first vote" turnout. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections will enable them to vote before leaving home and high school, and establish a life-long habit of voting. Evidence from Austria confirms that extending voting rights to people after they turn 16 promotes higher turnout for first-time voters and over time. Austria's experience also shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to contribute sound decision making and quality participation in democracy.
FairVote played a vital role in Takoma Park, MD's extending municipal voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in 2013. The results in Takoma Park have been incredibly positive, affirming the growing body of research indicating several benefits of lowering the voting age. In 2013, Takoma Park 16- and 17-year-olds voted at twice the rate of voters 18 and older. Residents also support the measure: In an exit poll of an April 2014 Takoma Park special election, 72% of participants supported keeping voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds in city elections.
Hyattsville, MD, with FairVote’s support, followed Takoma Park’s lead and adopted 16- and 17-year-old voting in January of 2015. Watch 15-year-old Sarah Leonard speak with MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki about expanding suffrage in Hyattsville below.