Campaign Seeks to Lower the Voting Age in Local Elections

Massachusetts Students Rally Local Councils to Seek Rule Change

In most U.S. states, 16- and 17-year-old citizens are considered old enough to drive on local roads, work in local businesses, attend local schools and pay local taxes.

Now a nationwide campaign is pushing to give these young people the right to vote in local elections as well.

“Lowering the local voting age will help spur renewed attention to civic education in our schools, instill a habit of voting in our youth, and invigorate engagement with our local governments and communities,” wrote teens Aaron Nelson and Max Carr in an op-ed column published last week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a local newspaper in Northampton, Mass.

The two young men recently convinced the Massachusetts towns of Ashfield, Shelburne and Wendell to petition the state legislature for permission to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 in municipal elections. They pointed out that in Takoma Park, Md., the first city in the nation to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, 40 percent turned out for their first election in 2013, with no contested races on the ballot. That, they noted, was a better turnout than the percentage of voters who participated in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, which reached a 72-year low of only 36.4 percent.

A 2016 study conducted by Vote16USA, a national campaign organized by Generation Citizen advocating for a lower voting age, found 16- and 17-year-olds in Takoma Park accounted for 2.7 percent of the voting age population, but 4.9 percent of the ballots cast. Hyattsville, a neighboring city, made the same change in 2015 and saw similar results. State law allows cities in Maryland to pass this type of charter amendment with a city council vote, rather than having to put the issue before voters as a referendum.

“In the elections since the changes, both cities have seen 16- and 17-year-olds who are registered to vote turn out at higher rates than older voters, but the overall number of 16- and 17-year-olds who are registered to vote remains low,” the study found. “Interviews with students, teachers, and policymakers indicate that lowering the voting age has been generally embraced by the communities, but the actual effects of the policy change are still playing out. Some political candidates and elected officials have increased their interactions with high school students, and some young people have become more active in local politics. School and district policy around civics classes has not been officially changed, but classroom teachers welcome the opportunity to make civics lessons more relevant to students’ lives.

“As these changes are extremely recent, it will take many more years to properly evaluate the consequences of lowering the voting age on the municipal level in these communities,” the report noted.

“Proponents of lowering the voting age cite numerous reasons for considering such a move: it can create habitual voters at a younger age, it can incentivize schools to teach civic education, 16- and 17-year-olds are demonstrably mature enough to make informed votes, and they deserve to have a meaningful voice in matters that affect their local communities.”

Nelson, 19, and Carr, 18, are attending college this fall. They became advocates of lowing the voting age in their respective home towns of Ashfield and Shelburne, Mass. They started petitions and eventually won the support of their town councils. As the word got around, another nearby town, Wendell, Mass., also passed a resolution to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections.

After creating their own web site, Vote16Hilltowns.org earlier this year, they began getting more publicity for their campaign, which continues to drum up support throughout the region. Now, they’re taking their fight to the statehouse, trying to convince the State of Massachusetts to allow the three communities to implement the change.

“When we first mention the idea of 16- and 17-year-olds voting, many people have questions and concerns,” the two wrote in their op-ed. “These, broadly, boil down to two issues: do 16-year-olds have the capacity to vote, and why should we want them to?

“Both have clear answers. In the first case, researchers have found 16-year-olds to be just as capable of voting as 18-year-olds. Though parts of the brain are still developing at 16, Rutgers University researchers found that voting engages the brain’s ‘cold cognition’ abilities, or the ability to think in low-pressure, deliberative situations. The researchers found that this capability, as well as overall civic knowledge, was similar between American 16- and 18-year-olds. Additional evidence from other countries, including Scotland, Austria and Germany, and U.S. cities that currently allow 16-year-olds to vote, demonstrates that 16-year-olds are as capable as 18-year-olds, and retain voting independence from their parents,” Nelson and Carr contended in the column.

According to Vote16USA, the teens in Massachusetts aren’t alone. It cites active campaigns in Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., as well as in Boulder, Colo., Washington, D.C., and a statewide effort in Illinois to extend suffrage to 16- and 17-year-old citizens. In San Francisco, a ballot measure earned 170,000 votes in November to finish at 48 percent, just short of passing. Organizers say they’ll fight to get the question on the ballot again in 2020 and they’re efforts have inspired campaigns in other cities around the country.

“What we’re really most interested in,” Nelson said, “is helping communities create more engaged and effective citizens… and being a catalyst for civic education.”

Amanda Wessel, a politically active student from Takoma Park, Md., seemed to agree.

“I learned in government class that voting is habit forming and it’s so important to start young, before you go to college,” Wessel told researchers from Vote16USA. “I want people to vote, the democratic process to work better, and I want people to know their vote matters,” she is quoted as saying.

Nelson and Carr said giving young people the right to vote helps create livelong voters, better citizens and a healthier democracy.

FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that has championed electoral reforms since 1992, has also endorsed the idea, according to FairVote.org.

“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,” the organization maintains. “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.”