At 16, most teens are permitted to drive a car (a potentially lethal weapon). At 17, teens are allowed to join the military, own a gun and go to war. But, they can’t exercise a basic civic duty, voting for candidates and policies of their choice, until they’re 18.
For many teenagers, frustrated by government inaction over issues such as climate change and gun control, this is unacceptable. And strides are being made to change the voting age to 16. Enter the organizations and programs Vote 16 USA, Meddling Kids Movement and #Suffrage16, whose aim is to lower the voting age for the entire country.
Voting Age and Qualifications Have Historically Been in Flux
As any US historian can tell you, voting used to be the provenance of the white and male. Black males didn’t get the right to vote until the 15th amendment passed in 1870. Women had to wait until 1920 for the 19th amendment granting them that right.
Until 1971, the voting age was 21. It was lowered to 18 (the 26th amendment) because 18-year-olds were being drafted to fight in Vietnam, maybe dying, so the reasoning was they’d “earned” the right to weigh in on US politics.
Other ongoing restrictions on voting rights include convicted felons and gerrymandering, which generally impacts the voting power for poor and minority voters.
Historian Johanna Neumann put it succinctly.
“The right to vote in the United States has been a constant adaptation to the pulse of political will,” Neumann wrote on her website. “As young students like those from Parkland get more involved in the politics of the nation, one can envision calls for an end to gerrymandering and at-large elections — two practices critics believe disadvantage minorities — and for a restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who have served their terms.”
Young Would-Be Voters Have Skin In the Game
There’s a movement afoot to change the voting age nationally, but that takes an act of congress. Individual states can change the voting age for local, but not federal, elections.
“It’s egregious that a 17-year-old can sign up to serve their country and put their life on the line, but not have a say in the way it’s run,” stated The Hill in a recent op-ed. “ Even in places where they’re invited to vote in any capacity, it’s to weigh in on issues like school board races — hardly the only issue affecting them. They’re about to feel the squeeze of housing and higher education costs for the first time. And, when it comes to environmental policies that impact the health of their communities, many have been dealing with this their whole lives.”
The organization Vote 16 USA aims to lower the voting age for the entire country. Recently, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., proposed lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 for federal elections. Her proposal failed, but represented a shift, mainly because it had the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Teen activist Isabel Hope started Meddling Kids Movement and #Suffrage16 in 2018. She collaborated with Congresswoman Pressley.
“We’re currently lobbying Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley to re-introduce that bill [to lower the voting age to 16],” Hope tells Parentology. Their tactics include galvanizing youth leaders and members of their communities to ensure changing the voting age is a national issue going into 2020. “It’s a long game, but we believe the reason the bill failed its lack of youth representation.”
Now, Hope says, “It’s time for our suffrage movement.”
The importance of such a change would be vast, getting young people active, and heard, in politics. “Adults talk a lot about how kids never get involved in the system, ” Hope says, “but how can we when the system was built to keep us out? “
Voter 16 echoes these statements.
“Due to the country’s shifting demographics, it is now, more than ever, important to increase the turnout rate among young voters. When older voters outnumber younger voters by an overwhelming margin, as some municipalities experience, the interests of young people, such as school funding, can be overlooked,” Voter 16 USA’s website proclaims.
The idea is this: lower the voting age and start civic awareness earlier, leading to lifelong voters. While a voting age of 18 seems young enough to many, it often coincides with life changes like the start of college and moving which means voting can fall by the wayside.
As it takes effort to change registration or get an absentee ballot; starting at 16 means getting habituated to civics earlier when kids have more time.
Recently, the California Assembly approved a measure to lower the voting age to 17. While it still must be voted on en masse, it’s a good start.
“We’re feeling really excited right now,” Melissa Romero with the California League of Conservation Voters told ABC 10 news. “This is the first time this policy has made it this far in the legislative process.”
In the meantime, at least in California, 16 and 17 year olds can pre-register to vote. This means the moment they turn 18, they’re automatically registered and ready to vote. Since 2016, over 200,000 teens have pre-registered; it’s a start.
Hope thinks young people will influence everything in the near future, and for the better.
“In my opinion, the greatest issues affecting our generation are climate change and gun violence,” she says. “We carry the weight of our representative’s inaction on these issues every day. We’re also voting on things like mental health, public education, racial justice, gender equity, and voting rights in general.”
Putting it simply, Hope says, “Young people are not single-issue voters. We know what needs to get done and we are ready to tackle it head-on.”