Should 16-Year-Olds Vote?

flickr/Barack Obama campaign

The very first people to be protected by the 26th Amendment, which guaranteed 18-year-olds the right to vote, will be 62 by the next presidential election. It’s time to extend the franchise again.

Takoma Park, Maryland, may just be on the frontier of that expanded democracy. The Washington, D.C., suburb is apparently considering lowering the voting age to 16. That proposal would only apply to local elections, but there’s no constitutional prohibition stopping any state from lowering the voting age for state or federal elections as well (the Constitution prohibits raising the age, but not lowering it). A handful of similar efforts have been floated in recent years, although the only successes have been allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 the next November to vote in primary elections occurring before their birthdays. 

The case for teenage voting can be boiled down to three points: It’s consistent with other ways the law and politics treat teenagers; teens have interests too; and it’s good training for citizenship.

Start with the first one. Can you imagine a constitutional provision that free speech only kicks in at age 18? I’m not talking about speech in school, where courts have ruled that speech rights may be limited and many argue that the needs of education have to come before some student rights, but speech in general? Of course not. In virtually every area of politics except for voting and holding office, we don’t have age minimums. High-school kids—younger children, for that matter—are free to canvas neighborhoods, work phone banks, pass out literature, and otherwise attempt to affect elections. They’re allowed to give money, too. For that matter, there’s no minimum age for lobbying legislators or writing to elected officials. In fact, we tend to encourage that sort of thing. So why are voting and office-holding singled out as needing special protections? 

One good reason that kids should get to vote is that they are, after all, people. As people, they have interests; as citizens, they should be allowed to have their votes counted in defense of those interests. Indeed, a strict Lockean liberal accounting of politics, which stresses the interests and rights of individuals above all else, would probably go even further and demand voting rights from birth, with parents allowed to exercise the franchise for babies and small children until they are old enough to vote on their own. No, that wouldn’t give families “extra” votes—they would have as many votes as they have citizens. But when it comes to teenagers, it’s even more obvious that teens have, and can express, their interests. So why not through the vote?

On top of all that, younger teenage voting would be an excellent way to invite young people into democracy. After all, voting is in many ways the easiest part of democratic participation. Writing to legislators about an issue is much more difficult; so is working a phone bank, or addressing a public meeting. Yes, as I said above, teenagers sometimes do participate in more challenging ways, but most don’t. Voting is the training wheels level of democracy; if voting were all we had, we wouldn’t really have much democracy at all, but it teaches citizens that they do have a voice and can make choices about how they want to govern themselves. As such, voting should logically come before other forms of participation, but restricting the vote to 18-year-olds turns that on its head.

There’s also a simple practical reason for extending the franchise, at least if we care about eventually having high levels of participation. Eighteen turns out to be a terrible age to start voting. Many first-time voters now are off at college, asked to either vote in a place they no longer live or in a place they don’t intend to live in the future. For those who don’t continue school or attend a local four- or two-year college, many still move out of their parents’ house—and, given single-member districts, often into an address with a somewhat or entirely different set of politicians and even a different set of local issues. On the whole, 18- (and 19-) year-olds have relatively unstable lives that aren’t well-suited for establishing voting as a habit.

Now, would many young voters choose poorly given that they haven’t even finished their high school education? Would they be uninformed? Just follow what people tell them to do? Sure. But many voters of all ages choose poorly, are uninformed, and follow what others tell them to do. And we don’t take away their right to vote. Yes, it’s certainly true that many teenagers would just vote the way their parents do. But so what? Most of us wind up voting with groups we identify with politically, whether it’s ethnicity, religion, occupation, or, yes, family. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. To the extent that the broad category of “families” would benefit from teens voting, it’s only because, well, those families contain individual people—including people who, today, don’t count as citizens when it comes to voting.

At any rate, the complaint that younger voters would only parrot their parents because they haven’t learned enough yet not to misses one key fact: Most 16-year-olds now have a whole lot more education than most voters of any age did back when the franchise first started expanding back in the early nineteenth century. 

If it were up to me, I’d probably pick a younger age—maybe 14, when kids are starting high school, or even 12, at which point many of them begin to take an interest in the larger world. At the very least, I like the idea. But 16? That’s an easy call.