In 2016, voters in Berkeley, California, approved a measure to allow the city council to lower the voting age for school board elections, which seems like an intuitive way to incorporate teens into the democratic process: Most go to school, so they should have a say in the institution. However, many teenagers also drive, work, and pay taxes, so where do you draw the line for enfranchisement?
For Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Elections program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan public policy foundation, the logic can get slippery quickly: "You can say that any person living within a certain district is influenced by the leadership, whether it's a city, a town, a county, a state, a country, so if that's the criteria, then every single person would have the franchise."
Nonetheless, in many jurisdictions, the voting age is already trending downward. In at least 25 states, those who turn 18 by the general election can participate in some kind of primary or caucus, and according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, 14 states allow pre-registration at 16 years old, and four at 17 years old. In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, became the first city in the country to lower the voting age to 16 (the city also allows non-citizens to vote in certain elections), and a nearby town, Hyatsville, followed suit in 2015.
Four towns in Massachusetts are currently waiting for the state legislature to approve their resolutions lowering the voting age, but given neurological research on the brain and decision making, sociological research on political knowledge, and psychological research on voting habits, is the growing call to lower voting age wise?
Is voting like driving a car? Does it require impulse control and split-second decision-making, sometimes in emotionally charged situations? If so, neuroscience suggests that we should raise the voting age to the mid-twenties, when most adults' brains have finished maturing and are far from adolescence, a development stage that is, according to three researchers at Cornell University, "characterized by suboptimal decisions and actions that are associated with an increased incidence of unintentional injuries, violence, substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases."
However, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, voting isn't an activity we do when the mind is "hot." "You aren't presented with candidates one second before you have to make a decision," she says. Instead, you rely on the part of the brain responsible for dispassionate reasoning, which matures, on average, in the mid-teens.
No matter brain development, teenagers are on par with adults as concerns civic knowledge—though understanding our democracy is by no means a prerequisite for participating in it (a 2017 survey found that a third of Americans can't name even one branch of government). In Renewing Democracy in Young America, psychology professors Daniel Hart and James Youniss use standardized test scores and survey data to argue that, "On measures of civic knowledge, political interest, political efficacy [believing that voting matters], and participation in public life, [volunteering and contacting elected officials], 16-year-olds, on average, are obtaining scores similar to those of adults."
Partly for these reasons, Kawashima-Ginsberg supports lowering the voting age to 16, at an age where teens have more support and guidance, which could boost the participation rate of America's least likely voters. Though there are different estimates for the share of 18 to 29-year-olds who voted in the 2018 mid-terms, turnout was around 33 percent—much higher than in 2014 but about half that of citizens 65 and older.
When it comes time to register to vote, teenagers currently face a confluence of tiny barriers that Kawashima-Ginsberg describes as "daunting." The process can require identification, like a driver's license, which fewer teens are now getting, or a passport or birth certificate, which they may leave at home after they move out. Those who go to college are also unlikely to have a fixed address and may be confused about the residency requirements of their state.
On top of that, voting for the first time can be intimidating, especially without any formal guidance. According to a 2018 report from the Brookings Institute, just 26 states require high schools to have "simulations of democratic processes or procedures," and though teachers can supplement the curriculum with their own lessons, Kawashima-Ginsberg says that, in the current political environment, many are "reluctant to talk about anything that could be construed as partisan, even if it's not."
The result is that, especially for students whose parents don't vote, they must learn for themselves where their polling site is, when to vote, and how to mark a ballot or navigate a voting machine. Many don't. Last year, in a CIRCLE survey of 1,200 18- to 34-year-olds, only half felt prepared to vote if an election were next week, 39 percent didn't know where to cast a ballot, and 42 percent weren't sure whether someone with a misdemeanor offense could still vote (they can).
These barriers have long-term implications. "If you don't vote in the first three elections for which you're eligible, you're less likely to vote for the rest of your life," Mark Franklin, an emeritus professor at Trinity College, told the New York Times. "Somebody who's only voted once may never vote again."
Being at home, where teenagers are more likely to have support, can mitigate these effects. For example, in the first municipal election after Takoma Park allowed 16-year-olds to vote, those who were under 18 voted at over 10 times the rate of those who were between 18 and 25.
However, both Patrick and Kawashima-Ginsberg point out that there's another effective way to build good civic habits that does not entail extending the franchise: allowing teenagers to become poll workers. That's the case in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Patrick was the federal compliance officer for the elections department for 11 years. While there, she says that the students who took advantage of the opportunity were more likely than their peers not just to register when they turned 18, but also to vote regularly and in non-presidential years.
Another jurisdiction that's embraced the idea is Montgomery County, Maryland, which recruits students in grades 6-12 to work the polls through its Future Vote program. According to Gilberto Zelaya, the vice president of the county's board of elections and the program's founder, these children are natural fits for the positions. "They're not intimidated by the tablets," Zelaya says. "It's part of their being, so when they work on the poll books, they're so quick to look up voters and mitigate issues with the technology."
Many students in the county, Maryland's most diverse, also have experience translating for their parents. For that reason, Montgomery can offer assistance in at least 46 languages at the polls. Plus, the program saves the county in labor costs (so far, more than $2 million), and the student volunteers receive academic credit or community service hours in exchange for their time. After the students graduate, Zelaya says that many stay poll workers. Nearly 17 percent of poll workers in Montgomery are under 25, against just 8 percent nationally, according to Zelaya.
And there are even more ways for students to experience civic life. Montgomery also allows for a student member of the county's board of education, who votes on matters like "collective bargaining, school closings, boundary adjustments, and capital and operating budgets, but not on personnel disciplinary matters." That representative is chosen through an election that is, of course, run by other students, who serve on the special elections committee. "This important committee handles the election logistics of a public official," according to the county's website, "and is one of the few real civic educational opportunities in which students participate."