Some policymakers in the United States are considering whether the right to vote should be extended to 16 and 17 year olds. This policy would enfranchise millions of adolescents per year, including very large proportions of youth of color and youth from immigrant families[i]. Several cities in Maryland and Berkeley, California already allow 16 year olds to vote in local elections. Nationally, lower voting age policies are actively being considered in California, Oregon, and Washington, DC, and internationally, 16 countries allow teens to vote at age 16 or 17[ii]. Here, I present four ideas, supported by developmental and social science research, that lend support for policies that expand voting rights to teenagers. I also raise equity issues that should be seriously considered along with any voting age policy change.
Idea #1: We want more young people to vote. Democracy is built on the premise that we need voting-eligible people to cast ballots in large numbers, and across all ages, groups, and regions, to fully represent voices of the people in political decisions. [Not everyone equally agrees with this premise.] Research offers good reasons to encourage youth to vote early and often. At a country level, voting is associated with better societal functioning such as higher life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality[iii]. Among individuals, voting is habit-forming: the earlier one starts voting, the more likely they are to continue voting across the lifespan[iv]. When youth vote, they may stimulate voting among others. In one study, parents whose children voted for the first time were more likely to vote themselves than parents of children who were ineligible to vote[v]. Unfortunately, United States 18 to 29 year olds vote at substantially lower rates than older age groups[vi], and individuals of color tend to vote at lower rates than White individuals[vii]. Youth’s relatively lower voting rates are concerning, and the disparate voting rates across socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity also point to a deep-seated inequality in our democracy[viii]. Expanding voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds could address these problems by giving youth earlier opportunities to form the habit of voting.
Idea #2: Ages 16 and 17 are ideal for first-time voting. Expanding voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds would allow youth to begin voting when they are most connected to their communities and institutions. Schools have a mission to educate the next generation of citizens and could (in theory) provide education and support for voting. When Austria lowered their voting age to 16, adolescents increased their political interest as a result, especially when paired with civic education efforts in schools[ix]. Compared to young adults, more adolescents live with family and have connections to their community. Families, community members, and schools can distill valuable information about where and how to vote and what candidates and issues are on the ballot. A first-time voter of any age needs access to this information. Having all youth become voting-eligible while they are connected to at least one institution could reduce socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequalities in voting and increase youth voting rates overall. It is an open empirical question as to whether adding younger youth to the electorate would perpetuate or exacerbate these inequalities. To fully address inequality in voting, voting age policies should coincide with educational policies that provides adequate civic education to ALL high-school-aged youth.
Idea #3: Age 18 is not the best time to start voting. In 1971, US 18 year olds were granted the right to vote by the 26th Amendment, based on thinking that 18 year olds should be able to vote if they could fight in the Vietnam War. Yet from a developmental perspective, age 18 is not an ideal time to take on a new societal role. From age 18 through the mid-20s, youth experience a vast array of transitions, such as leaving home, starting college, taking on full-time employment, joining the military, and starting and/or ending romantic relationships, among others. Youth are traversing new settings that present opportunities for personal growth; this time of transition can also bring stressors and disrupt mental health[x]. Simply put, 18 year olds have a lot going on. Understandably, voting may take a backseat as youth focus on trying to successfully navigate many other opportunities and challenges during this time of transition. Moreover, voting for the first time in the United States is challenging. First-time voters experience confusion with voter registration, ID laws, polling locations, and difficulties with time availability and other logistics as obstacles to voting[xi]. These obstacles are exacerbated for youth of color and youth of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. After youth leave high school, few institutions are available to provide support for first-time voting, and youth who do not attend college are particularly disadvantaged in this regard[xii]. With this developmental context in mind, it is not so surprising that 18-29 year olds vote at much lower rates than older adults. Revising policy so that first-time voting occurs in adolescence when youth are more connected to institutions can allow youth to establish voting knowledge and habits before their lives are disrupted by multiple life transitions. In other words, the high school years may be a more developmentally appropriate time in life to introduce voting.
Idea #4: 16 and 17 year olds are not that different in capacities for voting from 18 year olds. From a developmental perspective, there is no evidence for an age cut-off that makes 18 year olds more qualified or capable of voting than 16 or 17 year olds. Research has found no discernible differences in psychosocial maturity or cognitive capacity between 16-17 year olds and 18-21 year olds but did identify marked differences between 15 and 16 year olds[xiii]. In the political domain, 16 and 17 year olds report similar levels of political efficacy, knowledge, interest, tolerance, and skills compared to 18 to 20 year olds[xiv]. Thus, compelling evidence suggests that 16 and 17 year olds should be as capable of casting a ballot as 18 year olds.
Another Equity Consideration. Some areas are considering giving partial voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. For example, Berkeley passed a law allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in school board elections, which undoubtedly expanded youth’s rights and provided the opportunity for youth to exercise their voice. However, in this context, youth do not have the right to vote for other local candidates or issues. Is it fair to extend partial voting rights to one age group when a fuller set of rights is available to others? This is ultimately a value question rather than an empirical one. Extending partial voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds could be considered positive incremental change that includes youth in the democratic process. However, from a historical perspective, the idea of partial voting rights evokes other times in our nation’s history when individuals from racial/ethnic minority groups were not considered full citizens[xv]. Ideally, revised voting rights policies would give youth equal voting rights at the outset.
Conclusion and Action Steps. In conclusion, 16 and 17 year olds are capable of voting, and they are connected to schools and other institutions that can ease their transition to voting. Changing the voting age could be a way to dismantle the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequalities in voting rates. However, this is an open empirical question that could be investigated if a large, diverse city decided to expand voting rights to 16 and/or 17 year olds. Schools should be enlisted as key partners to offer high-quality civic education across all high schools to better ensure that youth of color and youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are better represented among voters.
If this discussion has piqued your interest in efforts to lower the voting age, explore whether there are initiatives in your local area to consider voting age policy changes. Get involved in the national Vote 16 USA campaign (http://vote16usa.org/). Have conversations to share this knowledge or engage with differing opinions on the issue. Ask your elected representatives their views on lowering the voting age. In most places, it is current voters that ultimately decide whether voting rights should be expanded to teenagers.
[i] U.S. Census Bureau (2018). Older people projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html
[ii] Hart, D., & Youniss, J. (2017). Renewing Democracy in Young America. Oxford University Press.
[iii] Moon, B. E., Birdsall, J. H., Ciesluk, S., Garlett, L. M., Hermias, J. J., Mendenhall, E., … & Wong, W. H. (2006). Voting counts: Participation in the measurement of democracy. Studies in Comparative International Development, 41(2), 3-32.
[iv] Plutzer, E. (2002). Becoming a habitual voter: Inertia, resources, and growth in young adulthood. American Political Science Review, 96(1), 41-56.
[v] Dahlgaard, J. (2018). Trickle-Up Political Socialization: The Causal Effect on Turnout of Parenting a Newly Enfranchised Voter. American Political Science Review, 1-8.
[vii] File, T. (2018). Characteristics of voters in the presidential election of 2016. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/demo/P20-582.pdf
[viii] Schlozman, K. L., Verba, S., & Brady, H. E. (2012). The unheavenly chorus: Unequal political voice and the broken promise of American democracy. Princeton University Press.
[ix] Zeglovits, E., & Zandonella, M. (2013). Political interest of adolescents before and after lowering the voting age: the case of Austria. Journal of Youth Studies, 16(8), 1084-1104.
[x] Schulenberg, J. E., Sameroff, A. J., & Cicchetti, D. (2004). The transition to adulthood as a critical juncture in the course of psychopathology and mental health. Development and Psychopathology, 16(4), 799-806.
[xii] Finlay, A. K., Wray-Lake, L., & Flanagan, C. A. (2010). Civic engagement during the transition to adulthood: Developmental opportunities and social policies at a critical juncture. In L. Sherrod, J. Torney-Purta, & C. Flanagan (Eds.), Handbook of research on civic engagement in youth (pp. 277-305). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. doi: 10.1002/9780470767603.ch11
[xiii] Steinberg, L., Cauffman, E., Woolard, J., Graham, S., & Banich, M. (2009). Are adolescents less mature than adults?: Minors’ access to abortion, the juvenile death penalty, and the alleged APA” flip-flop.”. American Psychologist, 64(7), 583.
[xiv] Hart, D., & Atkins, R. (2011). American sixteen-and seventeen-year-olds are ready to vote. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 633(1), 201-222.
[xv] Digital History (2019). The Three-Fifths Compromise. Digital History Archives. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=163
Author Biography: Dr. Wray-Lake’s research is centrally focused on youth civic engagement from a developmental perspective. A driving question of her research is how and why individuals become engaged in society. Civic engagement consists of behaviors, values, knowledge, and skills that comprise political and prosocial contributions to community and society. Wray-Lake’s research documents patterns of developmental change in civic engagement across adolescence and young adulthood. Findings are showing that developmental trajectories vary across individuals and differ by type of civic engagement. A primary interest is identifying how relationships and experiences in everyday contexts such as families, schools, and neighborhoods foster growth in youth civic engagement. She is interested in examining mechanisms that explain socioeconomic inequalities and understanding ethnic and cultural differences in youth civic engagement. Dr. Wray-Lake also conceptualizes civic engagement as a malleable lever that can promote youth thriving, and has interests in linking civic engagement to socioemotional competencies and psychological well-being. Her program of research uses mixed methodologies and has both conceptual and applied implications.