When my phone dings, it’s usually one of two things: it’s either a parent asking for an update of my schedule for the day, or its a message in a group chat titled ‘New New and Actually Improved Vote16’. This coy title represents the on-and-off struggle that has been Vote16 Culver City, a grassroots campaign started by myself and fellow high schoolers looking to lower the voting age to sixteen in our city’s municipal elections. And no, this was not for a school project, or even to fulfill community service credit. This effort would not have been possible without over a year of exhaustive legal research, meetings and campaign stops, comprehensive social media outreach and, perhaps most importantly, a functional button maker.
Contrary to popular belief, the “perfect” voting age has always been up for debate. It wasn’t until the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971 that the franchise was expanded to eighteen year-olds on the federal level. The essential argument was that if 18 year-olds could be drafted to fight in a war, they should be able to vote for or against the politicians who sent them there. In 2013, Tacoma Park, MD was the first municipality to challenge the voting status quo again in their local elections. Through the city council, residents passed an amendment to their city charter which granted, for the first time in American history, 16 and 17 year-olds a place at the ballot box. Other municipalities in Maryland and California have since followed suit, and thus the movement towards a lower voting age has started again.
Lowering the voting age has innumerable benefits for improving voter turnout. According to a 2003 study from the American Journey of Political Science, if someone votes in just one election they become 50% more likely to vote in the subsequent one. Allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote would raise the chances that they vote in at least one election before they go off to college or hold a job, therefore encouraging a lifetime of civic engagement. It would also reward those who are already politically active in their communities. And there are a surprising amount of the latter, especially after tragedies like Columbine and the Parkland shooting, who wish to be involved in deciding the policies that directly affect them. For example, in a FairVote analysis of the 2013 election in Takoma Park 16- and 17-year-old eligible voters outperformed all other age groups in voter turnout. When given the option, teens have overwhelmingly shown that they will exercise their voting rights, and will do it in even higher rates than older age groups. Allowing teens to vote in municipal elections would help educate youth about the effects of casting a ballot, and make them feel more engaged in their community and the choices their local government makes.
Along with being affected by many of the same key issues as adult voters, sixteen and seventeen year-olds are cognitively prepared to make valid voting decisions. Types of thinking can be divided into two broad categories: hot and cold cognition. Hot cognition, the ability to make split-second decisions, is not developed until the age of 25, thus contributing to higher car accident rates among young people. Cold cognition, however, the ability to make calculated decisions over a long period of time, has been fully developed by sixteen. This kind of long-term decision-making is exactly the kind of skill needed to vote. Therefore, the notion that young people aren’t mentally developed enough to vote is grounded in reactionary impulse, not science. Allowing young people a seat at the table also has the potential to completely reinvigorate schools’ civics education programs. Students learn best when the information that they are presented with is somehow relevant to their lives, and allowing youth to have a stake in the game of their local political system could be the cure to the seemingly chronic apathy many young people feel towards modern politics. What I see in my teenage peers, however, is not a lack of interest or passion, but a lack of a conduit through which to express it aside from waxing poetic on Instagram stories. While realistically, disengaged and ill-informed teens aren’t going to take the time to register to vote on local issues at sixteen, implementing this change would reward those young people who are intellectually curious and active members of their community.
A key tenet of the Vote16CC organization is the idea that democracy should be non-partisan. It’s not about who and what these teens would be voting for, it’s about ensuring the fact that they are educated and engaged in the political process in the first place. The idea of a representative democracy in which the activities of the government reflects the diverse will of its constituents isn’t Democratic or Republican, it’s American. Teens have the same cognitive capabilities, educational preparation, and ambition as many adults do, but without the chance to express it. Vote16CC aims to give them that chance. If you would like more information and updates about our campaign please visit www.vote16culvercity.org.