Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?
October 22, 2018
While many Americans are concerned about low rates of voter turnout, particularly among young people, there is growing evidence that voter turnout is not the only element of American democracy that shows signs of unhealthy behavior.
Yoni Appelbaum argues in The Atlantic that “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore.” Appelbaum writes that democracy is an “acquired habit” that develops slowly over time through repetition. Democracy was once the “shared religion of people who otherwise had little in common.” Americans historically were very connected with local and national civic associations, but fewer and fewer people are members of such groups nowadays. The result is “catastrophic,” with greater disdain for democratic institutions than ever before.
So what can be done to strengthen participatory democracy? Appelbaum suggests starting with young people, by strengthening the civic association they all have access to—student government.
It means carving out the time, space, and resources for students to govern themselves. One recent study found that, holding all else equal, greater knowledge of civics among high-school seniors correlated with a 2 percent greater likelihood of voting in a presidential election eight years later. Active participation in extracurricular activities, however, correlated with a 141 percent increase.
For this to be effective, the administrators and teachers at the school need to take self-government by students seriously, so that they can see the impacts and consequences of their actions.
Another idea is to lower the voting age to 16 so that young people have a stake in democratic decisions before they graduate high school. The Washington, D.C., City Council is currently considering such a proposal, and it is expected to pass. This would allow 16-year-olds to vote in all elections, including federal elections.
Have your students consider the proposal: Should the voting age be lowered to 16 throughout the country?
Have them read some articles and opinion pieces on both sides of the issue:
- Washington D.C. May Allow 16-Year-Olds to Vote for President in the 2020 Election(USA Today, provides background on the motivation for the D.C. bill)
- Should 16-Year-Olds Be Allowed to Vote? (PBS NewsHour, provides background, the history of the voting age, and a few arguments on both sides)
- The Case for Lowering the Voting Age (14-year-old Kathryn Zaia, a winner of the New York Times Fifth Annual Student Editorial Contest, writes in favor of lowering the voting age)
- No, We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age to 16 (Hoover Institution fellow David Davenport writes in Forbes in opposition to lowering the voting age)
Have students read the articles (and others if you would like them to do some research). Choose a discussion format and ask them:
- Which arguments do you find most persuasive, and why? Are there any arguments that you think are relevant that have not been raised?
- What does it mean to be a responsible voter?
- Thinking about all of the arguments, do you think that the voting age should be lowered to 16 in the United States for all elections?
Do students believe that if they obtained the right to vote at a younger age, they would be more engaged in the political process? Would they participate in the future by doing more than “just” voting?
Although most students in high school cannot vote, is it possible to get someone to vote for them? The Proxy Project gives students the tools to get someone who otherwise probably would not vote to go to the polls and vote in their place. Teens find someone, usually a relative, who usually would not vote, and they both sign up as a team and download a proxy to fill out. After the vote, the proxy is uploaded to show that the adult voted in place of the teen.
This is one way to help people who are too young to vote stay engaged in the election, and we would love to hear about and share others. If you have any creative ideas about getting students more engaged in civic life, please tell us in the comments!