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Supporters of this idea believe it will encourage greater civic engagement among younger citizens and help establish a habit that will continue into later years. Critics of the idea say 16- and 17-year-olds lack the maturity and experience to be informed voters.
This year, nearly 240 million citizens of the United States will be eligible to vote for the president. If recent voting history is a guide, just over 60% of US adults will cast a vote – since 2000, the highest turnout was still under 64% in 2008. Voter turnout among eligible adults in the US lags behind many other democratic countries, including both Mexico and Canada.
For decades, voter advocacy groups have attempted to encourage greater turnout in the presidential process. Many political activists believe lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 could be key to bringing about this result.
Supporters of this idea believe it will encourage greater civic engagement among younger citizens and help establish a habit that will continue into later years. Critics of the idea say 16- and 17-year-olds lack the maturity and experience to be informed voters. Though the debate currently remains a niche issue, a vote in San Francisco in November could spark greater national interest.
Why lower the voting age to 16?
On November 3, residents of San Francisco will vote on whether to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. It would be the second attempt in four years to lower the city’s voting age from 18, but while an attempt in 2016 barely failed, local advocates believe there is enough support this time around to pass the measure.
According to Crystal Chan, an organizer for the Vote 16 SF campaign, who spoke with NBC News, “Vote 16 will help youth of color in San Francisco establish the habit of voting at an earlier age and really provide them with the support and the resources that they need to continue building on that habit as they grow older.”
Vote 16 USA, the national organization behind Vote 16 SF, is focused on lowering the voting age in local municipalities around the country. It gives four reasons for lowering the age. The first is, as Chan stated, developing the voting habit in younger people. The organization contends the habit will be easier to develop while people are still in high school and at home.
The second reason is a direct refutation of those who say 16- and 17-year-olds are too immature to vote. Vote 16 USA argues there is ample research that shows people in that age group “have the necessary civic knowledge, skills, and cognitive ability to vote responsibly” and that there is evidence they are just as engaged as 18-year-olds.
The third reason is that 16- and 17-year-olds “have a stake in the game” because they can hold jobs, drive cars and can be tried in adult court (under certain circumstances). For this reason, they should have a say in who makes the laws, the organization says.
Finally, Vote 16 USA argues, “lowering the voting age to 16 will strengthen civics education,” thereby ensuring these young voters grow up into more informed adults.
Is there support for lowering the voting age?
If the San Francisco measure passes, it will be the first major US city to lower the voting age to 16. Currently, there are only four towns in the US that permit 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, all of them in Maryland.
While that would suggest there isn’t a strong push for a lowered national voting age, the discussion is being had among many prominent politicians, especially in the Democratic Party.
In August 2018, US Representative Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would lower the national voting age to 16. The amendment is not currently expected to achieve the two-thirds threshold of support in either chamber of Congress. That could change in a future Congress, though.
In April 2019, billionaire and then-presidential hopeful Andrew Yang announced that one of his policy plans was lowering the voting age to 16. Yang, who ran as a Democrat, dropped out of the race in February 2020.
Yang’s policy announcement came just a month after US House Representative Ayanna Pressley, also a Democrat, introduced an amendment to the For the People Act of 2019 to lower the voting age to 16. The For the People Act is aimed at making it easier for people to vote. It passed in the Democratic-led House, but has not been taken up by the Republican-led Senate.
Pressley’s amendment to the act was voted down, 305 to 126. Nearly half of House Democrats voted against her amendment and only one Republican voted for it.
In March 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, voiced support for lowering the voting age, saying at the time, “I think it’s really important to capture kids when they’re in high school, when they’re interested in all of this, when they’re learning about government, to be able to vote.”
When asked about lowering the voting age, most of the Democratic nominees for the presidency who gave an opinion on the issue were open to lowering the age. While only four candidates said they supported it, including Yang, 11 candidates said they were open to it and only two were opposed.
The current voting age
Up until 1971, the voting age in the US was 21. That changed with the 26th Constitutional Amendment, which passed nearly unanimously through Congress and achieved ratification from the states within a hundred days. President Richard Nixon officially certified the amendment on July 5, 1971, lowering the voting age to 18.
Much of the impetus for lowering the voting age at the time came from the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Advocates for the amendment persuasively argued that because citizens could be sent to war at the age of 18, they should have the right to vote on the politicians who declared wars.
Such reasoning doesn’t underpin the current push for lowering of the voting age. That might explain why, in polling from 2019, 75% of Americans opposed allowing 17-year-olds to vote and 84% opposed giving the vote to 16-year-olds.
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