Why you should care
Because we need to cast the net wider.
Brandon Klugman is the campaign coordinator for Vote16USA, a Generation Citizen initiative.
As a country sharply divided along political lines, Americans need to bridge their differences to find common ground and purpose. The biggest obstacle? Lack of participation in the electoral process.
A possible solution to closing that divide is to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. Getting a larger percentage of eligible voters to the polls, after all, can help ensure that election results properly reflect the public’s mood. More eligible American voters sat out in 2016 than voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — and this wasn’t unique; the same has been true for respective candidates in all recent elections since 1968.
Democracy is something you participate in, not a spectator sport.
But Mattan Berner-Kadish, 21, did not sit out and would never dream of it. The University of Maryland student cast his first presidential ballot last year. Voting became a habit for Mattan long before last year because he grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, one of two U.S. cities that extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds for municipal elections.
Mattan’s first vote was in an uncontested city council race, when he was a 17-year-old at Montgomery Blair High School. Participating in that election was about more than choosing a representative, he says. It “was about displaying that, regardless of who is running or what I am voting for, I want to vote because voting is important.” Family and peers helped ensure that Mattan was aware that his city allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections starting in 2013. Unlike many nonvoting millennials, Mattan — from the next generation — feels anything but disenfranchised. “Democracy is something you participate in, not a spectator sport,” he adds.
Unlike Mattan, most Americans don’t get a chance to practice voting while in high school. Instead, they become eligible voters during major life transitions, at ages 18 and 19, when they’re more concerned about finding jobs or making their way through college. As a consequence, most don’t bother voting the first time they’re eligible, thus setting themselves up as habitual nonvoters from the beginning. Only 35 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds voted in 2012.
Lowering the voting age on the local level might seem far-fetched, but evidence suggests it can increase youth turnout in the long run. Studies have found that voting is habitual, and young people are more likely to establish the habit if their first voting opportunity comes at age 16 or 17, rather than 18 or 19. In both Austria and Takoma Park, for example, 16- and 17-year-olds have turned out at higher rates than older first-time voters.
Given the current state of our very divided democracy, this problem requires immediate attention. We simply need younger generations who are eager to cast ballots. More than a dozen countries around the world let 16-year-olds vote on the local, state or national level. Austria implemented 16-year-old voting for all of its national elections in 2008, and the local approach is catching on in the United States too. Inspired by the successes in Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, students in California launched campaigns that resulted in 2016 ballot measures in San Francisco and Berkeley.
In San Francisco, more than 172,000 citizens voted in favor of lowering the local voting age. It was a hair short of the threshold needed to pass but still a tremendous success for a burgeoning issue on the ballot for the first time in a big city. In Berkeley, a measure to allow 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections passed with an overwhelming 70 percent of the vote. These campaigns show that lowering the voting age at the local level is a serious policy idea that Americans are ready to consider.
Our political challenges may seem insurmountable. But let’s remember that in addition to building bridges across the aisle, we need on-ramps to participation. As Mattan says, democracy isn’t a spectator sport; we need solutions for getting more folks off the bench. Extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds on the local level is a good place to start.