Takoma Park, MD has lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16. Lowell, MA, is working to allow 17-year-olds to vote, and there’s a pending bill in California that would make that change statewide.
I am in favor. Strong evidence suggests that when students are explicitly taught about voting and elections in their high school classes, they are more likely to vote and to be informed voters once they reach voting age. I think schools will be more likely to teach about elections if most of their juniors are eligible to vote, and the impact of the lessons may be greater if students can put the information into practice right away.
No evidence suggests that 17-year-olds are less knowledgeable about politics or less responsible than older voters, and in fact there is the potential for current high school students to be particularly well informed because they would be studying social studies and civics around election time.
In the Washington Post, columnist Petula Dvorak has a piece entitled “Takoma Park’s new 16- and 17-year-old voters push a Cheech and Chong agenda,” in which she quotes people-on-the street saying things like, “This is the enfranchisement of Beavis and Butt-head.” Dvorak is getting lots of flack for the article and has been responding politely, so I don’t want to pile on or make her reporting the issue. But there are substantive questions here.
Like the people Dvorak interviewed, many Americans are cynical about youth as political actors. Practically every piece we publish attracts comments that mock young voters or assume a Democratic partisan agenda behind efforts to boost their engagement. Of course, if one is cynical about voters in general, that opens a worthwhile conversation. But young voters aren’t Beavis and Butt-head. Their top issues are economic. I have never seen marijuana or other behavioral issues attract significant interest as political priorities. Many (45% of the respondents in a recent Harvard poll of 18-29s) think that they lack sufficient information to vote–and they tend to disenfranchise themselves. In other words, Beavis and Butt-head will not turn out. A reform like Takoma Park’s is very unlikely to produce a mass of youth participating in local elections, but the ones who take advantage of the new right will probably be highly substantive and idealistic young people. Think of policy nerds rather than Cheech and Chong–if you have to use stereotypes at all.
In any case, it’s a worthy experiment, very well intentioned, and we will see what happens.