Lowering the Voting Age – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Protestors at the youth-led March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on Mar. 24, 2018.
Source: Alison Durkee, “March for Our Lives Protests Spark Record-Breaking Day for Voter Registrations, Organizers Say,” mic.com, Mar. 26, 2018
From the 1990s to the present, elected officials in several US states have made unsuccessful attempts to lower the voting age to 16, and sometimes even younger. [1] Student activism in the wake of a Feb. 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has brought new life to the debate over letting younger people vote in elections. [2]

Currently, Berkeley, California, and a handful of cities in Maryland allow 16-year-olds to participate in local elections. [2] Internationally, about 20 countries allow citizens to vote at age 16, sometimes with conditions such as being employed or married. [6]

A constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 16 would require approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures (38 states). [3] Alternatively, state legislatures could pass laws allowing younger people to vote in their states. [4]

 

 

Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

Pro 1

16-year-olds are just as knowledgeable about civics and have the same ability to make good voting choices as older voters.

A study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that, “On measures of civic knowledge, political skills, political efficacy, and tolerance, 16-year-olds, on average, are obtaining scores similar to those of adults… Adolescents in this age range are developmentally ready to vote.” [7]

Scientists believe that “cold cognition” skills, those used to make the kind of informed, well-thought out choices needed in voting, are solidly established in 16-year-olds. [8]

Austria lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007. According to Markus Wagner, social sciences professor at the University of Vienna, et al., studies of subsequent elections show “the quality of these [younger] citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well.” [9]

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Pro 2

Lowering the voting age to 16 increases voter turnout and develops lifelong voting habits.

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developed countries. [18] A person who votes in one election has a 13% greater probability of voting in a future election. [19] Researchers say that people who participate in elections when they first reach voting age are likely to develop the habit of voting, and those who don’t are more likely to remain nonvoters. [20][21]

16-year-olds are learning about government and civics in high school, and the structured environment would lead to higher turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds as teachers and parents help them overcome typical obstacles for first-time voters, such as the registration process and finding their polling places. [9][22][23] By contrast, many 18-year-olds are in a time of transition, making them less likely to participate in elections. [21][23]

Involving young people in voting can have a “trickle up” effect that mobilizes their parents and other adults in their households to vote, increasing the overall voter turnout rate. [24][25] Turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds in Takoma Park, Maryland, the first US municipality to lower the voting age for local elections, was double that of eligible voters 18 and older. [26]

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Pro 3

At age 16, people should have a voice in the laws that affect their lives and a stake in the future of their country.

A US Senate report cited student activism and protests as reasons for lowering the voting age to 18 in the 1970s during the Vietnam War: “We must channel these energies into our political system and give young people the real opportunity to influence our society in a peaceful and constructive manner.” [33]

Students today live under threats to their futures such as school shootings and climate change, and they deserve to have influence over their elected officials beyond the protests they’ve organized. [34] Sofie Whitney, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, says, “If 16-year-old students are old enough to be affected by the laws, and realize that there is a problem, then they should have the power to help change it.” [35]

The age of 16 is when people’s relationship with the law changes as they often start driving, working, and paying taxes. [36][37] 16-year-olds can be emancipated from their parents and live independently in most states. [38]

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Con 1

Kids under the age of 18 aren't mature enough to participate in elections.

Experts say that 16- and 17-year-olds demonstrate lower interest in politics, have less political knowledge, and lack the experience needed to participate in elections. [11][10][12]

Social scientists Tak Wing Chan and Matthew Clayton say that 16- and 17-year-olds wouldn’t be competent voters because “research in neuroscience suggests that the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is still undergoing major reconstruction and development during the teenage years,” and added that the prefrontal cortex is what “enables us to weigh dilemmas, balance trade-offs and, in short, make reasonable decisions in politics.” [11]

People under 18 are subject to different labor, contract, and criminal responsibility laws, and aren’t allowed to join the military without parental consent or serve on a jury. [13][14][15][16] Most are still living at home and would be influenced by the voting choices of their parents. [17]

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Con 2

The 18-29 age group has extremely low voter turnout numbers, suggesting that people aren't ready to vote until later in life.

Only 12.5% of 18-year-olds participated in the 2014 midterm election, compared to 42% of the general population. [27] According to the United States Elections Project’s analysis of US Census Bureau data, just 16% of eligible voters ages 18-29 voted in the 2014 election, compared to 30% for ages 30-44, 43% for 45-59, and 55% for age 60 and up. [28][29] Over the last 30 years, voter turnout for 18- to 29-year-olds has never exceeded 21% in a midterm election. [29][30]

Only 23% of students scored at or above the “proficient” level on the last National Assessment of Educational Progress test of civics knowledge and skills. [31]

David Davenport, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said, “My concern is if 16-year-olds were allowed to vote on any kind of broad scale, what we’d actually be doing is bringing the least politically informed, the least politically experienced, the least mature in terms of making long-term judgments and trade-offs, directly into and potentially affecting our voter turnout and results.” [32]

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Con 3

The vast majority of Americans of all ages and political views agree that 16-year-olds should not be given the right to vote.

A 2018 poll from The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81% of Americans oppose lowering the voting age to 16, with a scant 16% in favor. Only 19% of young people support the idea, and just 9% of seniors. Among Democrats, 25% would like to see the voting age lowered; support among Republicans is a mere 6%. [39]

A different survey found 8% support for lowering the voting age to 16; 45% want to keep it at 18; and 46% would like to raise it back to age 21. [40]

A Twitter poll by WJLA, the ABC news affiliate in Washington, DC, found just 18% support for a proposed bill to lower the voting age to 16 in the District of Columbia, compared to 77% against. [41] The local NBC news affiliate ran a similar poll online in which 83% of participants were against the bill. [42]

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The DC City Council had considered legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds in the nation’s capital to vote in all elections, including the 2020 presidential election, but they tabled the bill indefinitely after losing support from council members. [5]

Until the 1970s, the voting age in America was 21. [43] A debate over lowering it to 18 began during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt decreased the military draft age to 18. [44] President Eisenhower called for citizens ages 18 to 21 to be included in the political process in his 1954 State of the Union address. [44] But lawmakers didn’t take action until marches and demonstrations drew attention to the fact that young people who were being drafted to fight in Vietnam didn’t have the ability to vote in most states. [43]

Congress proposed the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1971, which stated, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” [45] The ratification process, which required approval from 38 states, was completed in around three months, the shortest amount of time of any amendment in US history. [46]

Footnotes:

  1. National Youth Rights Association, “The Movement to Lower the Voting Age: A History,” youthrights.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  2. Joshua Douglas, “Parkland Students Show Why 16-Year-Olds Should Be Able to Vote,” cnn.com, Feb. 20, 2018
  3. National Archives, “Constitutional Amendment Process,” archives.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  4. David Davenport, “No, We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age to 16,” forbes.com, May 25, 2016
  5. Fenit Nirappil, “D.C. Council Declines to Take up Bill to Lower Voting Age to 16,” washingtonpost.com, Nov. 14, 2018
  6. Generation Citizen, “Lowering the Voting Age for Local Elections in 2017 and Beyond,” vote16usa.org, Jan. 2017
  7. Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins, “American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Jan. 2011
  8. Laurence Steinberg, “Why We Should Lower the Voting Age to 16,” nytimes.com, Mar. 2, 2018
  9. Markus Wagner, et al., “Voting at 16: Turnout and the Quality of Vote Choice,” Electoral Studies, June 2012
  10. Mori Social Research Institute, “Young People’s Attitudes Towards Politics,” ipsos.com, July 2003
  11. Tak Wing Chan and Matthew Clayton, “Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to Sixteen? Normative and Empirical Considerations,” Political Studies, Oct. 2006
  12. Robert Tracinski, “Why It’s Time to Raise the Voting Age Back to 21,” thefederalist.com, Feb. 27, 2018
  13. US Department of Labor, “Workers under 18,” dol.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  14. US Legal, “Contract by a Minor,” contracts.uslegal.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  15. United States Courts, “Juror Qualifications,” uscourts.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  16. Today’s Military, “Review Military Entrance Requirements,” todaysmilitary.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  17. Damian Medina, “Why California Should Definitely Not Lower Voting Age to 17,” sandiegouniontribune.com, June 23, 2017
  18. Drew Desilver, “U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout,” pewresearch.org, May 21, 2018
  19. Kevin Denny and Orla Doyle, “Does Voting History Matter? Analysing Persistence in Turnout,” jstor.org, Jan. 2009
  20. Daniel Hart and James Youniss, Renewing Democracy in Young America, 2017
  21. Mark N. Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945, Apr. 2004
  22. Eric Plutzer, “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood,” American Political Science Review, Mar. 2002
  23. Eva Zeglovits and Julian Aichholzer, “Are People More Inclined to Vote at 16 Than at 18? Evidence for the First-Time Voting Boost among 16- to 25-Year-Olds in Austria,” Journal of Elections Public Opinion and Parties, Oct. 2014
  24. Amy Linimon and Mark Joslyn, “Trickle Up Political Socialization: The Impact of Kids Voting USA on Voter Turnout in Kansas,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly, Mar. 2002
  25. Jens Olav Dahlgaard, “The Surprising Consequence of Lowering the Voting Age,” washingtonpost.com, Mar. 1, 2018
  26. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, “Solid Turnout for 16 and 17 Year Old Voters in Takoma Park, MD,” naspa.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  27. United States Census Bureau, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2014: Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2014,” census.gov, July 2015
  28. Emily Guskin, “Are Young Voters Going to Sway the Midterms? New Data Shows That’s Not Very Likely.,” washingtonpost.com, Aug. 1, 2018
  29. United States Elections Project, “Voter Turnout Demographics,” electproject.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  30. Civic Youth, “National Voter Turnout Figures – Civic Youth,” civicyouth.org (accessed Oct. 26, 2018)
  31. National Assessment of Educational Progress, “2014 Civics Assessment,” nationsreportcard.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  32. Devyn Rafols-Nuñez, “Push to Lower the Voting Age Gains Traction across the States,” nbcnews.com, June 24, 2018
  33. Justia, Jolicoeur v. Mihaly, law.justia.com, 1971
  34. Washington Post Editorial Board, “Give a Lower Voting Age a Try,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 13, 2018
  35. Rainesford Stauffer, “These Teens Marched for Gun Laws. They Were Just Getting Warmed Up.,” thinkprogress.org, May 29, 2018
  36. Eric Zorn, “It’s Only Logical — 16-Year-Olds Should Have the Right to Vote,” chicagotribune.com, Apr. 26, 2018
  37. Hannah Grabenstein, “Should 16-Year-Olds Be Allowed to Vote?,” pbs.org, Apr. 20, 2018
  38. FindLaw, “Emancipation of Minors Basics,” family.findlaw.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  39. Public Religion Research Institute, “American Democracy in Crisis: Civic Engagement, Young Adult Activism, and the 2018 Midterm Elections,” prri.org, Oct. 11, 2018
  40. Lehigh Valley Opinion, “Poll: Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16? Raised to 21?,” lehighvalleylive.com, Feb. 27, 2018
  41. WJLA Staff, “A New Bill Is Being Proposed in D.C. That Would Lower Voting Age to 16,” wjla.com, Apr. 10, 2018
  42. WJLA Web Staff, “Bill Lowering Voting Age to 16 Proposed in D.C.,” mynbc15.com, Apr. 18, 2018
  43. Jocelyn Benson and Michael T. Morley, “Common Interpretation: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment,” constitutioncenter.org (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  44. History.com Editors, “The 26th Amendment,” history.com (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  45. National Archives, “Document for March 23rd: 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” archives.gov (accessed Nov. 1, 2018)
  46. NCC Staff, “Just Which State Ratified the 26th Amendment?,” constitutioncenter.org, June 30, 2017