Can Youth Suffrage Finally Become a Mainstream Issue in 2020?

For those who want to lower the voting age to 16, Donald Trump's administration may provide an opportunity to popularize the cause.
By Elizabeth King ,

Hundreds of New York City high school students walk out of class to join a protest against President Donald Trump's immigration policies on February 7th, 2017, in New York City.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Turning 18 is an exciting time for a lot of American teenagers: Once turned the age of majority, one is suddenly allowed to buy tobacco, enlist in the armed services, gamble, and, come election time, head to the polls and vote. And yet, maybe 18 shouldn't be the franchise gatekeeper that it is: Teenagers under 18 are stakeholders in a variety of local and national issues (education, transportation, and labor rights, to name a few), as the past two years have shown.

After the election of Donald Trump, teenagers in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area walked out of school in November, and took to the streets to march. California high schoolers in Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego staged similar walkouts, among other forms of peaceful protest. Those under 18 were unable to participate in politics at the ballot box because of their age, but advocates for youth suffrage hope this won't always be the case, and are working to lower the voting age to 16. In a country where the president waxes political to a crowd of teenage Boy Scouts, politics are visibly changing the lives of American teens—and youth-suffrage activists are looking to maximize the opportunity to revive their cause.

The law that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 is, in fact, relatively recent. Congress ratified the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, just 46 years ago, in July of 1971. The amendment passed swiftly following massive student-led demonstrations against the Vietnam War, when young people demanded to have more of say in the political process. Another youth-rights movement that rose up in the 1990s, in part fueled by listservs and other political corners of the Internet, has continued to evolve to the present day.

In just the last four years, three cities have lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16: Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, and Berkeley, California. In 2013, Takoma Park, a small town of 17,000 people equidistant to Annapolis and D.C., became the first city in the United States to lower the voting age. Hyattsville followed in 2015, and Berkeley passed its own youth voting measure this past election. FairVote, a non-profit organization that seeks to expand and protect voting rights, helped secure youth suffragists' victory in Takoma Park, advising a city council member to lower the voting age when the council was looking for ways to get more people out to the polls. The argument for youth suffrage has been similar in other cities that have lowered the voting age: In Berkeley, the city council argued in support of the measure to lower the voting age to 16 so that Berkeley citizens would get in the habit of voting at a young age.

"The [San Francisco] campaign really proved the viability of the idea."

The argument against the youth franchise may not surprise anyone who's ever been 16: In Takoma Park, some argued that teens are too immature to vote and that they might be easily influenced by their parents' opinions. This criticism is common, but Brandon Klugman, the campaign coordinator for Vote16USA, a project that supports youth-led efforts to lower the voting age, says that 16 is just the right age for people to start voting, given that, by this age, "high school students are receiving some sort of civics or government education, or have already the year prior."

Indeed, research has found that 16-year-olds have the requisite education and experience to vote responsibly. In a 2011 paper published in The Annals of the American Academy, Rutgers University professors Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins argue that 16- and 17-year-olds possess all of the "core qualities of citizenship: membership, concern for rights, and participation in society." Reviewing literature on children's psychological and social development, the authors concluded that teens 16 and older are capable of voting responsibly. Further, the authors argued that there is a "growing block of older voters displacing the interests of younger Americans in the political arena." In their view, 16- and 17-year-olds can and should have the vote so that they can grandstand for issues they care about, like a higher minimum wage, free college education, and, yes, legalized marijuana.

Where younger teens have been able to vote, they've certainly taken advantage of the opportunity. In the first election where 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in Takoma Park (an uncontested mayoral and school board race), the voter turnout rate among registered 16- and 17-year-olds was 44 percent, 33 percent higher than the overall turnout rate. And the idea has proved popular outside of Maryland since: In the 2016 elections, 70 percent of voters in the city of Berkeley voted yes to lowering the voting age to 16 for local school board elections. A 2016 measure in San Francisco to drop the voting age to 16 for all local elections just lost, with 48 percent approval.

"The [San Francisco] campaign really proved the viability of the idea. Over 170,000 people did vote yes." Klugman says. He adds that, while the voter turnout for this issue may have been especially high since the measure was up for a vote during a presidential election, and the Berkeley school board and city council were unanimously supportive before it even went to ballot. Still, the circumstances in Berkeley were not so unique that the results of the 2016 measure couldn't be replicated "in other California cities for 2020," he adds.

Hundreds protest a Trump administration announcement that rescinds an Obama-era order allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms matching their gender identities, at the Stonewall Inn on February 23rd, 2017.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Vote16USA is indeed hoping to continue the momentum the issue gained during the 2016 election. Around this time last year, Klugman reached out to the youth advisory board for Boulder, Colorado, which is now working with Vote16USA to win the youth vote in their city. Eva Martinez, a 16-year-old high school student and activist who serves on Boulder's youth advisory board, wrote to Pacific Standard in an email, "I think lowering the voting age is a great opportunity to really speak out and have input in what is going on around in my city." Right now, Vote16USA and the Boulder youth advisory board's efforts in Boulder consist mainly of garnering the support of community organizations in preparation for eventually bringing the issue before the city council, according to Martinez.

While youth suffrage efforts have so far remained local, and in just a handful of cities, a few politicians in Washington have spoken out in support of the issue. Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison tweeted in August of 2015: "I think the voting age should be lowered to 16. What do you think?" Ellison's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but he spoke with MinnPost shortly after his 2015 tweet, and said he became interested in the youth vote after meeting with a younger high school student who asked him why 16-year-olds can't vote. "What could go wrong if 16-year-olds could vote?" Ellison said he asked himself. "A lot could go right."

The same year, current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a speech to Generation Progress, a non-profit advocacy group for student activists and journalists, at the "Make Progress" National Summit that she was "all for" lowering the voting age to 16 or 17. Pelosi lent her support to the issue again in 2016, voting (via proxy) in support of the San Francisco ballot measure during a meeting of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. Pelosi did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Notably, Ellison and Pelosi are both Democrats, a party, some experts argue, that could benefit a great deal if the voting age is lowered. Data journalist and founder of the political analysis site Smart Politics Eric Ostermeier covered Ellison's stance on the youth vote in 2015, writing that suffrage for 16-year-olds would add between eight and nine million more eligible voters. Because young people tend to lean left and support progressive causes, the youth vote could be a "boon" for Democrats, Ellison wrote. While both Democrats and Republicans supported (to varying degrees) suffrage for people of color and women, it's fair to suppose the GOP might be less interested in the youth vote, given that they don't necessarily have as much to gain.

Notably, Ellison and Pelosi are both Democrats, a party, some experts argue, that could benefit a great deal if the voting age is lowered.

There's little recent research on the political preferences of younger teens, but the Millennial generation has demonstrated a preference for the left. According to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center, about 50 percent of Millennials identified as Democrats or as Democrat-leaning, compared to 35 percent on the Republican side. Still, this issue has not gained anything resembling real momentum on the national level, and remains an emerging or non-existent issue in most state and municipal governments.

But there is good reason to think that this issue could take off in the coming years, as young people get more involved in politics. A 2015 report out of the University of California–Los Angeles found that civic participation (such as attending demonstrations and organizing) was the highest it had been in a decade. And though enthusiasm for either Trump or Hillary Clinton was relatively low among Millennials, 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote in 2016, a 1 percent increase from the 2012 elections. Amid these shifts, Vote16USA is working with youth activists on campaigns in Illinois, Fresno, Sacramento, Washington, D.C., and Boulder to get 16-year-olds the vote.

Further, thousands of teens under 18 participated in political events led by their peers during the 2016 presidential election season, a sign that they're aware and already getting involved in the democratic process. Suzanne Rueda, a sophomore who showed up to a walkout in L.A. told the Christian Science Monitor in November" "We can't vote. This is all we can do."

The campaign for youth suffrage may not yet be a major national issue, but in a tense political environment where students are agitating frequently in high schools as well as on college campuses, the issue may become more mainstream yet. By supporting the vote for 16- and 17-year-olds, policymakers—especially those on the left—don't just stand to gain some new votes, they could build foundations for future support as well. As Martinez said, "a lot of my peers are excited and ready to learn and get involved." Now, they just need access to the polls.

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