With a recent resurgence of protests and movements spearheaded by youth, there are more debates than ever about whether the voting age should be lowered from 18 to 16 nationwide. Lowering the voting age would mean most high schoolers could take part in caucus and primary elections. While 17 out of 50 states in the US currently allow 17-year-olds to vote in caucuses if they will turn 18 by Election Day, nearly all states have rejected previous bills that proposed a lower voting age, citing immaturity and insufficient civics knowledge as their reasons. In order for students to understand the pros and cons of lowering the voting age, the Smoke Signal has looked into both sides of the issue and has observed what other nations have decided as well.
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As America faces an ever-growing number of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing racial tensions, civic engagement has become more important than ever to elect capable officials who can effectively address these issues. Lowering the voting age will be beneficial in increasing civic engagement among all ages and giving a voice to future generations in the issues that will shape the world we live in.
For decades, America has ranked extremely low in voter turnout among other countries. In 2016, our turnout was only 55.7% of all eligible voters, a record low that placed us 30th out of the 35 nations included in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Research indicates that in addition to introducing a new demographic of voters, lowering the age requirement can positively influence overall civic engagement through a “trickle up” effect that can be observed in family households. A study from Tufts Center For Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that when 16 and 17-year-olds are engaged in civics, it spurs family conversations about politics and government. In turn, this increased political discourse between teenagers, parents, grandparents, and so on, makes these groups more likely to vote as well. This expansion of civic engagement is vital to democracy as it empowers citizens to be well-informed and to fight for the changes they’d like to see.
In addition to increasing civic participation, lowering the voting age will also increase youth representation in politics. Teenagers currently have little say in the elected officials who make decisions on issues that affect teenagers’ futures. In fact, teenagers will have to bear the brunt of those decisions as they grow up. Take climate change: as the climate deteriorates, future generations will be subject to rising sea levels, increased natural disasters, and more extreme weather patterns. Despite this, teenagers currently have no voting ability to give a platform to politicians whose planks they align with the most. Their voices should be heard, and lowering the voting age will allow for this.
Those who are against lowering the age requirement argue that teenagers have not developmentally matured, leading to uninformed, reckless voting that would deteriorate our democracy. However, a paper written by professors from Temple University, UC Irvine, UCLA, Georgetown, and the University of Colorado actually indicates that the rational decision-making part of a teen’s brain is fully developed and comparable to adults’. Scientists distinguish between two kinds of cognition: hot and cold. Hot cognitions are snap decisions made under stress or in a rush, while cold cognition occurs when people have the time to make sound, deliberate decisions. While teenagers fall short in hot cognition as they’re unable to make decisions under stress, they are comparable to adults at making decisions requiring cold cognition. Thus, lowering the voting age will not spur the rash, snap decisions critics assume teenagers make, as voting is a deliberate, lengthy decision that is made over several months.
Overall, politics and government the is important in tackling global issues, and the need to expand civic participation is more crucial than ever. By lowering the voting age, we can increase political involvement and give voice to those who have a vested interest in solving those issues, making it a necessary step forward for our democracy.
In 2015, Vote16USA, a nationwide campaign spearheaded by teenagers aimed at lowering the voting age to 16, was announced. This initiative was not widely embraced, and for justifiable reasons. Lowering the voting age would only encourage uneducated decision-making and result in biased voting.
While there is a decline in political engagement, the issue should not be addressed by allowing 16-year-olds to vote. Lowering the voting age inappropriately and ineffectively addresses the declining voter turnout. Instead, schools must place a greater emphasis on civic education from a young age. In a study published by Annenberg School of Communication, only 26% of those between the ages of 15 and 24 believed that being involved in democracy and voting is “extremely important.” This lack of civic participation stems from poor civic education in schools. A 2016 study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 23% of middle schoolers performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, indicating a lower civic engagement in the future. These below-average test scores directly correlate to poor engagement among adults. Without a comprehensive civics curriculum, students who will become future voters don’t have a strong foundational understanding in politics and government. Governments must prioritize civic education in schools to cultivate stronger engagement for future generations instead of allowing today’s ill-equipped teenagers to vote blindly.
In addition to their lack of education, teenagers are also missing the “real world experience” necessary to vote. According to ACT for Youth, 66% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 are still living with their parents, meaning they likely don’t have a realistic or comprehensive understanding about paying taxes, earning a sustainable income, calculating monthly expenditures, among other life skills. These experiences play an integral part in understanding topics such as healthcare, gun policy, and the budget deficit. Without taking on these responsibilities, teenagers won’t have enough maturity or knowledge to make an informed decision about propositions on their state ballots regarding these issues. Living at home also means that many of their decisions are likely to be swayed by family members. This influence may prevent teenagers from thinking independently and casting a vote based on their beliefs, which will affect the integrity of the election in the long run.
Furthermore, teenagers’ political beliefs are more likely to be impacted by social media than adults. Social media algorithms, a way of presenting online information based on relevancy, can form ideological bubbles that prevent users from exposure to the outside beliefs. Central University Professor Janos Kertesz said, “[Social media] algorithms are not optimized to make users as best informed as possible; they are optimized for popularity. So, the news that users read is what they want to read.” Teenagers, who often don’t yet have the wherewithal to challenge their preexisting beliefs, are even more prone to polarization and radicalization. Before they can take the time to establish their political ideologies, these algorithms often polarize their perspectives prematurely. The resulting echo chambers can lead to underdeveloped political views and misinformed voting.
In order to protect the American democracy from losing its integrity, the voting age should not be lowered until there is a greater emphasis on civic education and until teenagers are able to make mature decisions independently without the influence of peer pressure or social media.
International Voting Ages
Debates on whether to lower the voting age to 16 years old began taking place worldwide in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
One of the earliest decisions to lower the voting age came from Germany, where certain states lowered the age requirement for some municipal and state elections to 16 during the mid-1990’s.
Germany has since engaged in more discussions on whether to expand this decision to national elections. Die Linke Party Leader Katja Kipping said, “16-year-olds are no less interested and informed than 18-year-olds. It is high time to let young people aged 16 and over have a say.” However, many center-right parties disagree with this sentiment, and the current voting age for national elections remains 18 years old.
Austria became the first country to allow 16-year-olds to vote in national elections in 2007. Other countries that have adopted this new voting age include Brazil, Iceland, Malta, Scotland, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
Sylvia Kritzinger, a professor at the University of Vienna, said, “With a low voting age, one can educate young people politically, so to speak, make them habitual voters,” The policy was met with a general lack of opposition from government parties in Austria.
Lowering the Austrian voting age was supposed to be a possible segue to other EU-member states implementing the same changes, but many of the proposals and bills set forth in most nations were ultimately rejected due to conflicting stances between political parties.
While countries such as Austria, Brazil, and Iceland have already successfully lowered their voting ages to 16, conversations still continue worldwide on whether 16-years-olds should be allowed to vote.
Do you believe that the voting age, which is currently 18 years old, should be lowered to 16 years old? Why?
“No, because that would give people who do not currently hold a stake in the country the ability to influence governmental decisions. Unless the military enlistment age, tax laws, and other such standards would also be lowered to 16 years of age, I do not believe the voting age should be lowered.” – Sahas Goli, 9
“No, because there’s no way a 16 year old is mature enough; even if they are, they might treat it as a fun fill-in thing and might not know the impact of it. Also, a 16 year old would be in 10th grade probably, and they are already stressed out enough about tests and grades and don’t need the pressure of choosing senators, representatives, presidents, etc.” — Faye Lin, 9
“So for starters, I don’t think 16-year-olds should be able to vote because I don’t see enough in-depth political involvement from high school students as there should be, but I’m sure it would greatly benefit those who are passionate about politics, including me. At this age, I see how lots of misinformation on the internet can lead to masses of the youth electorate to think and feel certain ways about various policies and politicians. However, this past election cycle, California voted on Proposition 18, which would permit 17-year-olds who will be 18 at the time of the next general election to vote in primary elections and special elections. I most definitely support this proposition!” — Adyant Patnaik, 10
“Yes, I believe that as long as those who are 16 years and older can be subject to taxes, tried as adults in court, and in general affected significantly by decisions made by their representatives in government, they should be allowed to decide who those representatives are.” — Pranav Sreeram, 10
“I think the voting age should be lowered to 16 because at this age, in this time, many teenagers are both educated enough to cast their own vote and responsible enough to understand that voting is not an act that can be misused. Without being able to vote, as adults, we inherit a country and propositions that we had no choice in, especially in regards to local school propositions. As students are the ones affected by school budget cuts and parents are affected by the raised taxes, it is only fair that both have a say in what propositions for school funding pass. Moreover, this added responsibility will give younger generations a greater respect for our democracy and inspire them to commit their civic responsibilities to a greater degree.” — Ragalina Palaka, 11
“I don’t believe that the voting age should be lowered to 16 years old. I feel as though people don’t fully mature until they reach their late teens, so giving immature citizens the right to choose who directs the government seems like a risky idea.” — Ashton Lee, 11
“I personally don’t think the voting age should be lowered because it could set a precedent for other age requirements (like the minimum age to serve in the military) to be lowered against the best interests of young people. Many teens are indeed educated in civics and/or have jobs and pay taxes, but the difference in maturity between just a few years is huge when people are teens compared to when they’re adults.” — Elizabeth Deng, 12
“Yes, as issues like climate change and equal educational opportunities affect our youth, our youth is becoming more politically aware and active. Just like how the soldiers in the Vietnam war argued that they should have the right to vote if they can be drafted to war, I believe that our youth should have the right to vote if we have to deal with the effects of climate change in the future or make our way through this educational system. Bottom line is that if there are laws or policies that have a major impact on our lives, we should be able to have a say in these decisions as well.” — Asutosh Jain, 12
“Already, there are states throughout the country where the voting age is 17 and there have already been proposals for reducing the age to 16 in some places. Historically, individuals had to be 21 years of age to vote. When many youth realized that they were old enough to fight and die in war before they had a chance to cast a ballot, youth were able to bring about a change through congress to change the age to 18. When you consider the many ways in which youth contribute to our society including volunteering, working and paying taxes all before the age of 18, it seems entirely appropriate that they should have the democratic right to vote and have a say in the political sphere as well. Furthermore, for some 16 and 17 year olds, high school may be the only time they study history or government in their lives and it makes sense to reinforce this study by engaging in a political act like voting while the issues are fresh in their minds. This has the potential to have a lasting impact in creating a more informed society into adulthood.” — History Teacher Toby Remmers
“I don’t think the voting age should be lowered to 16 as most 16 year olds nationally don’t have the critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions of this type.” — Mr. Jeffers
Cover image by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani