One of the biggest takeaways for some people after the Parkland, Florida shooting was a new awareness that so many young people were able to eloquently tackle the issues in the media and organize what’s becoming a real movement for gun violence prevention. It shouldn’t be so surprising that high school kids know what’s going on and have feelings about it, yet it’s led to a real discussion in some circles about whether we should lower the voting age to 16 years old.
It’s actually not such a radical idea.
Scotland recently lowered its voting age, and teens in Brazil, Austria, Cuba, Argentina, and Ecuador can also head to the polls. New Zealand and the U.K. are also considering letting 16-year-olds vote.
This month, the District of Columbia proposed lowering the voting age, too, and seven of 13 council members support the measure. There are four cities in America that have already lowered the voting age. In Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Greenbelt (all cities in Maryland) and Berkeley, California, 16-year-olds can vote in local elections. Lowering the age in D.C. would be different, though, since it would allow 16-year-olds to also vote in federal elections.
That scares some people who think that teenagers aren’t responsible enough to vote, but the last time we lowered the voting age wasn’t that long ago. In the wake of the Vietnam War, Congress passed a law lowering the voting age from 21 years old to 18 years old, given that many people thought it was unfair that an 18-year-old could be sent to war but not have any say in voting for people who send them to one. There are many laws that affect young people, too, so why not let them participate in voting?
Here are some things to consider.
1Pro: Teens have to worry about adult things.
Teens can start working part-time when they’re 14 years old, which means that they’re paying taxes and are affected by labor laws. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year 15.5% of the working force was made up of people aged 16 and 17 years old. Teens can also be tried as adults for committing crimes. They drive cars, go to poorly funded schools, get sick and have health care concerns, are discriminated against for their race, nationality, and gender identity. Why should they be left out of the conversation about the laws that can dictate how they’ll be treated in the world, just like adults?
2Con: But not all adult issues.
There are some people who think that lowering the voting age would lead to having to lower the age of basically everything else. You can’t get a credit card or take out a loan until you’re 18. You can’t get called up for jury duty, tie the knot (in most cases), or even work full time. So in the name of being consistent with other laws, lowering the voting age to 16 years old would complicate other issues.
3Pro: It would make people more civically engaged.
Lowering the voting age to 16 years old might put a little pressure on parents and schools to better prepare teenager to vote. It could also instill the habit of voting early on, as research suggests that once people start to vote, they continue doing so. Research also shows that parents vote more often when they’re trying to set an example for their kids. Lowering the voting age could encourage everyone to feel more responsible about getting involved in their communities and the issues that matter the most to them. It would also substantially increase voter turnout, which is a good thing.
4Pro: 18 is actually a bad age to start voting.
Studies show that people tend to start voting when they are in a stable place to do so. That just makes sense — when you’re busy worrying about moving or work, you’re less likely to have time to make it to the polls. When you’re 18 years old, you might be moving out of your parents’ house, going to college somewhere, and generally trying to figure your life out, which can feel like a full-time occupation at 18. But 16-year-olds are more likely to be living at home and have more stability in their lives, making it a better time to start the voting habit than 18.
5Con: Teen’s brains aren’t fully developed.
The research is mixed on how developed a teen’s brain is, which comes up often in circles that want to raise the driving age, for example. According to Slate, a 16 year old’s prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps with “planning, reasoning, judgment, and impulse control” is fully developed. Yet other research shows that 16 and 17 year olds are less mature than their older peers, which makes some people worry that they could be coerced to vote a certain way or do so in a noncommittal way.
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, told PBS, “[W]ith emotional information, the teenager’s brain may be responding with more of a gut reaction than an executive or thinking kind of response. And if that’s the case … you’ll have more of an impulsive behavioral response.”
Then again, the way we mature happens slowly over time. Our brains aren’t even fully developed until we hit 40 years old, and then they start to decline anyway. If we make a decision about lowering the voting age based solely on neurological science, we would have to consider maybe lowering it to way before 16 years old and then taking away your grandparents’ right to vote. Which might not be such a bad thing considering the current state of political discourse.
The legal ramifications (like giving a teen the right to work full-time or get a mortgage) of lowering the voting age are probably the most complicated part of the discussion, since everyone, despite their age, is capable of making an emotional or ill-informed decision. But when it comes to increasing civil engagement and voter turnout, letting 16 year olds vote is probably a good idea. And that’s likely what scares politicians and pollsters looking to preserve the status quo.