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The case for allowing 16-year-olds to vote

A measure in San Francisco proposes lowering the voting age to 16. Should other cites do the same?

San Francisco teens protest for the right to vote.
San Francisco Youth Commission

Two years ago on election night, Oliver York, then a 15-year-old sophomore at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, sat at home brooding.

“More than half of all the San Francisco ballot measures directly affected young people like me,” he recalls. “But we had no say.”

York decided to try to change that.

He solicited the help of San Francisco Youth Commission, a body of young leaders who advise city officials on youth issues. He organized meetings with the city school board, local officials, and state senators. And by January 2015, he’d launched a full-fledged campaign to fight for youth voter rights.

Two years later, York’s efforts have resulted in Proposition F — an initiative that calls to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. It’s been endorsed by the likes of Congress member Nancy Pelosi, state Sen. Mark Leno, and the San Francisco School Board, and a recent poll indicated it has earned the support of 49 percent of voters. (It needs 51 percent to win.)

If the bill passes, it will make San Francisco the first major city in the United States to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. And chances are, it would increase civic engagement among a demographic that is fully capable of choosing who ought to represent them.

Youth voter turnout is at an all-time low

Before we touch on the rationale of lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections, it is important to step back and take a look at the current climate of civic engagement among young voters in the United States.

The 2014 midterm election saw the lowest turnout rate ever recorded: a mere 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted. Even worse, only 46.7 percent of these voters registered — the lowest figure since the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

Local elections tell a similar story. In an analysis of Gallup data from 26 major US cities, Aaron Weinschenk, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, found that local election turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds is half that of voters ages 25 and older. (Note: This data was self-reported and, as such, is likely inflated — but it’s the best local election data on youth voters available.)

Zachary Crockett / Vox

Hundreds of studies have offered explanations for why youth voter turnout is flailing, and scholars have proposed many temporary or long-term solutions to boost civic engagement, ranging from making voting registration easier to offering more preregistration programs.

Lowering local election voting age to 16 in major cities, in conjunction with the integration of civics classes in school, has been gaining support as a tenable way to boost turnout.

Here’s why.

16-year-olds are mature enough to make informed decisions

In America, 16-year-olds work without limits on their hours and pay income tax on their earnings. They drive motor vehicles. When they commit crimes, they are tried as adults in our court system. Yet, when it comes to allowing them to vote in local elections, we draw the line.

The main argument against allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote is that they are not mentally developed enough — that their brains are still developing and they do not perform as well as older adults in impulse-driven situations, where emotions run high.

In addressing what motivates decision making, social psychologists identify two drivers: “hot” cognition, and “cold” cognition. Choices motivated by hot cognition are entirely emotional in nature; there is little reasoning or rationality involved. Cold cognition, in contrast, is independent of emotional involvement. Voting, in its ideal form, should be a cold cognition task: We would hope our voters are able to make decisions based on facts and evidence rather than emotion.

Philip Zelazo, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, had people of varying ages perform two tasks that measure executive function abilities — the Eriksen Flanker Task and the the Dimensional Change Card Sort. His research suggests that by age 16, cold cognition skills are near fully developed.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

“Executive function skills are the brain-based attentional skills required for goal-directed problem solving [like voting],” says Zelazo.

While these skills generally continue to improve until the mid-20s, the biggest leap occurs from age 10 to 12. As Zelazo’s research shows, the ability to make informed decisions is formed well before the age of 18.

Further research has shown that 16-year-olds “possess the same level of civic knowledge as older young adults” (those ages 18 to 25). While their knowledge is not up to par with that of, say, a 40-year-old voter, there is no statistical discrepancy between them and 18-year-old voters who already have the right to vote.

16-year-olds are eager to get civically involved

Students in San Francisco have been leading the effort to lower the city’s voting age.
San Francisco Youth Commission

Though Proposition F would make San Francisco the first major US city to lower the voting age to 16, two much smaller municipalities in Maryland have already adopted such measures. In these locales, 16- and 17-year-olds are voting at rates nearly quadruple those of older voters.

In 2013, Takoma Park — a small, progressive enclave in a suburb of Washington, DC — became the first city in the US to lower its local election voting age to 16. Two years later, nearby Hyattsville followed suit. “We have many 16- and 17-year-olds in our community who care deeply about this place,” council member Tim Male, who initiated the measure, told the Washington Post.

The data proves that to be true: In Takoma Park, the turnout rate for 16- and 17-year-olds not only exceeded that of every other demographic in the city’s 2013 and 2015 elections, but nearly quadrupled the overall average:

Zachary Crockett / Vox

Further data can be drawn upon outside of the United States.

Internationally, at least 20 countries allow citizens under the age of 18 to vote. In Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Nicaragua, 16-year-olds regularly contribute to the electoral process. In Greece and Indonesia, 17-year-olds can vote in national elections, and in Israel they have the right to vote in municipal contests. Recently, 16-year-olds in the Scotland election had a 75 percent turnout rate — higher than voters three times their age.

But two European countries — Norway and Austria — present a particularly interesting case.

In 2011, Norway officials decided to test out allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. The result: 58 percent showed up to the polls — more than first-time voters ages 18 to 21. After lowering its voting age to 16, Austria saw a similar trend: 16- and 17-year-olds voted at higher rates than other young voters:

Zachary Crockett / Vox

Admittedly, voting turnout among all young voters (25 and under) is lower than turnout among older voters. But in a University of Austria at Vienna study, researchers found that turnout rates among 16- and 17-year-olds in the country deviated the least from the mean:

Zachary Crockett / Vox

These latter studies, which show a higher turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds than 18- to 21-year-olds, are indicative of a larger point: 18 is a terrible age to vote.

16 is a better age at which to form habits than 18

On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18. The act was largely fueled by young Vietnam protesters, frustrated that citizens could serve in the military at 18 but not vote.

The rationale for selecting the age of 18 was entirely based on the military service age — there was little information, in the form of rational discourse, as to what the ideal voting age was when considering habit formation.

At 18, most young Americans are going through major life changes: They’re entering the workforce. They’re exploring their entry into adulthood. They’re moving off to college — oftentimes, across state lines. These major changes are not beneficial to youth voter turnout: In a Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement report, 18-year-olds cited being “too busy” as a predominant rationale for not voting.

Furthermore, most of our rudimentary habits are formed prior to this final phase of adolescence, when we are living at home. A Brown University analysis of the Learning Habit Study (a dataset of 21,145 parent respondents) revealed that there is not much variance in routines and habits among children after the age of 9.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

“While still in high school and at home, a teenager's bad habit[s] can be moderated by parents,” psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt writes in Psychology Today.

“Away from family at college, however, and without this parental support, the young person is at the mercy of his own bad habit. It can be easier to install regular habits when still under the shelter of family than when one has moved out and there are more demands and distractions of independence to contend with.”

Voting, by measure of hundreds of studies, is a habitual act. Voting in one election increases the likelihood of voting in subsequent elections by 25 percent. As Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University, says, “if you voted in a past election, you tend to vote again.” Likewise, voters who skip their first election — typically at age 18 — are far more inclined to become habitual nonvoters.

Entrenched both in familial and institutional support groups, 16-year-olds are in a better place to form long-lasting voting habits than 18-year-olds — but only if the right to vote is accompanied by a robust civics education.

The right to vote means nothing without a basic knowledge of civics

Generation Citizen students learn about issues in their local governments.
Generation Citizen

In general, Americans of all ages possess a pitiful knowledge of civic affairs. Only 36 percent of us, for instance, can identify the three branches of US Government (Executive, Legislative , and Judicial).

Sixteen-year-olds are no exception. Though they are cognitively and habitually primed to vote, they often lack a deeper knowledge — or interest, for that matter — in the foundations of civic engagement. Should they get the vote in local elections, it is absolutely crucial that that new right comes in tandem with an educational support system.

Civics courses, designed to educate youth on the workings of both local and federal governments, have been proven to boost voter turnout. One study found that a year of such coursework can boost voter turnout for more than a decade after graduation.

Should Proposition F pass, the San Francisco Board of Education has committed to implementing a plan to give 16- and 17-year-olds the resources they need to be better informed citizens in an election.

“The entire school board is unanimously in support of this,” Matt Haney, president of the San Francisco School Board, tells me. “We can see a huge benefit for our school system and local government to have the perspective and voices of young people.”

Shortly after the proposition hit San Francisco’s ballot, an organization called Vote16USA — a subsidiary of the much larger nonprofit, Generation Citizen — offered its support in designing a curriculum.

Generation Citizen’s action civics curriculum model.
Generation Citizen

“We’re entirely focused on getting young people civically engaged in the classroom,” says Scott Warren, the founder of Generation Citizen. “Kids going through our program know who their local leaders are — school board members, mayors, state senators. It’s a driver’s ed course for democracy.”

Unlike a typical government high school class, Generation Citizen’s curriculum asks students to identify local issues in their communities, then work together — and with community members — to find solutions. They canvass neighborhoods, make phone calls, and meet with local politicians.

Over six years, Generation Citizen has worked with over 30,000 students in eight states, and reports dramatically improved rates of civic engagement.

San Francisco’s 16-year-olds: old enough to vote

Currently, cities in 13 states (and DC) have the legal ability to lower the voting age through charter amendments. The remaining states would require action at the state level.
Zachary Crockett / Vox

Perhaps the most compelling argument for allowing San Francisco’s 16- and 17-year-olds to vote is that Proposition F was entirely spearheaded by those under the age of 18.

After then-high school sophomore Oliver York formulated his plan, he brought it to district supervisor John Avalos, who helped draft it into a ballot measure. From there, an intrepid group of teens brought it before the Board of Supervisors, where it passed nine votes to two. A small army of 100 youth showed up to the Board of Education and presented a case so compelling that it convinced officials to unilaterally endorse the measure.

York, 17, who laments not being able to go to endorsement meetings held at bars, says that youngsters have led the entire effort to get the voting age lowered.

“We’ve have students meeting with legislators. We’ve had students going out and knocking on doors. And we have students leading conversations at their high schools about why voting really matters,” he says.

Members of the San Francisco Youth Commission present their case for lowering the voting age before the Board of Supervisors.
San Francisco Youth Commission

Among them is Lorelei Vaisse, a 16-year-old at Lowell High School.

“When people see me — a 16-year-old — civically engaged, they think, ‘Well, you’re probably an exception,’” she says. “But I’m not! There are so many 16- and 17-year-olds who are excited about voting.”

Neither York nor Vaisse will be eligible to vote on the measure Tuesday. Instead, they’ll be on the streets on San Francisco, handing out fliers.

“We may be teenagers who do things that frustrate our parents,” says York. “But we’re also people who care about our city. And we’re thinking about solutions that will make it a better place — not just for us, but for everyone.”