Proposal to Lower the Voting Age
by Keith Mandell
One simple step can greatly improve voter turnout and interest in elections. This
step can also increase government responsiveness and help reinvigorate our democracy. In
state after state and around the world, allowing young people to vote in elections has had
substantial positive effects. The voting age in the District of Columbia should be lowered
to sixteen for all elections for two election cycles (until 2002) in order to give this
proposal full time to demonstrate its numerous benefits.
Lowering the voting age to sixteen would increase interest in politics among both
adults and young people. It would help bring apathetic adults back to the polls. Studies
have shown that young people who participate in national mock elections, bring their
enthusiasm for politics back to their parents, who vote in higher numbers. This “trickle-up
effect” has had its greatest impact among parents from lower socio-economic
backgrounds. This is especially important in the District, which has a high number of low
Young people would greatly benefit from a lower voting age by becoming more
politically active and knowledgeable. In the United States, the Kids Voting program has
brought millions of young people to the polls, increased their enthusiasm for voting, and
knowledge of the world around them. This impact was most strongly felt among young
people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Young people would become even more
active if they are able to cast real, binding votes for candidates. Teen voting would lead to
lifelong electoral participation.
A voting age of sixteen would be the most effective way for long ignored
problems of both youth and adults to be better addressed. Young people have a strong
interest in improving education, reducing poverty, preventing crime and protecting the
environment. Young people who work pay social security taxes, yet have no say in how
the social security system is preserved so funds will be available for them. Many adults
agree with young people on these issues, but their concerns remain unaddressed because
of the dominance of special interests in government. Youth advocacy groups, such as the
Children’s Defense Fund, make a valiant effort so that government will not neglect these
problems. Yet these organizations lack power, because they are inadequately funded and
fail to seek input from young people themselves. Thus they are unable to build strong
bonds with the people they aim to help. As a result, government programs to aid young
people are underfunded and less successful than programs that benefit the elderly. A
higher voter turnout brought about by a lower voting age will make it easier for teens and
adults to organize and pressure government to more fully address these serious problems.
While some would insist the voting age should not be lowered to sixteen,
these arguments are simply not convincing. The District of Columbia City Council has
both the constitutional and statutory authority to lower the voting age. Sixteen is an ideal
voting age because young people at that age have the maturity and intelligence needed to
vote, while having the time needed to learn about issues and candidates. While the return
of the Kids Voting program to the District is important, something more is needed: young
people must be able to cast binding votes to assure that government will address the issues
they care most about. Lowering the voting age at the local level is ideal because it allows
for experimentation without the long delays of national legislation. It also allows for easy
restoration of eighteen as the voting age if the results of the voting experiment are not
positive. Finally, Washington DC is the ideal place in which to experiment with a lower
voting age. As the capital of the United States, it is the symbol of American democracy. A
voting age of sixteen would encourage other nations now considering a lower voting age,
including England, France and Australia, to take a chance and expand democracy.
America’s most marvelous legacy has been the expansion of suffrage to all adult citizens.
With a voting age of sixteen in the District, teens will begin to feel their voices matter too.
The time is right for the District to take this brave step.
For the following reasons the voting age should be lowered to sixteen in the
District of Columbia for two election cycles (through 2002). Then an evaluation should be
made in order to determine whether the program has been successful. If it has been
successful, it should be adopted on a permanent basis.
I. A Voting age of sixteen would increase voter turnout and interest in politics.
A. Teenage voters will discuss politics with their parents and encourage them to
turn out and vote.
Apathy among voters today is a major problem in American democracy. In the
1998 elections, only 36.1% of the voting age population turned out to vote, the lowest
percentage since 1942, when America was at war.1 Even in a presidential election year,
1996, turnout was only 49%.2 This level of turnout makes building a thriving democracy
Many nonvoters express a lack of confidence in our democratic system. They hold
strong positions on issues, but do not believe government cares about them or their
problems. Ironically, low voter turnout sends government a message that nonvoters do not
care about politics, leading to important issues being ignored. This neglect must stop.
Lowering the voting age to sixteen can be a small but meaningful step in raising
voter turnout in the District. How can this be done? A lower voting age, combined with a
curriculum designed to teach young people about the political process can increase their
interest in voting. This increased interest will be passed on to their parents through
after-school and dinner table conversations. Nonvoting parents will be encouraged by their
children’s enthusiasm to vote.
This theory has been tested and proven successful in the case of the Kids Voting,
a national mock election program which allows children in grades K-12 to vote at the polls
while learning about the political process through a comprehensive classroom curriculum.3
Kids Voting has had extremely positive results. Not only were young people
enthusiastic about politics, but some of that enthusiasm rubbed off onto their parents. The
result was a higher turnout among adults.
A 1996 survey by Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University journalism
professor, found a strong increase in turnout. Merrill compared turnout of registered
voters in five cities with Kids Voting with turnout in five cities without the program.
Merrill found that between five and ten percent of respondents reported Kids Voting was
a factor in their decision to vote. This indicated that 600,000 adults nationwide were
encouraged to vote by the program.4 Turnout increases in individual districts were even
more impressive. In Erie County, New York, one-third of all adults considered Kids
Voting an important factor in bringing them to the polls. For eleven percent it was the
A 1994 survey by Merrill showed a smaller overall increase in voting, but very
impressive increases in particular states. Merrill found that among fifteen states surveyed,
fourteen had higher turnouts. Washington State boasted an increased turnout of 9%, while
Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Kansas all had more than 5% increases as a result
of the Kids Voting program.6 An earlier study in Arizona by Merrill found that Kids
Voting had a cumulative effect: School districts that used the program in two election
cycles had higher turnouts than those that only used it in one.7
Few studies have measured the effect of Kids Voting in the District of Columbia.
The program existed here from 1994 until 1996 and appears to have had positive effects.
The District’s voter turnout in 1996 (40.9%)8 was higher than it had averaged during the
period 1972-1988, before Kid Voting became part of the curriculum (36.32%).9
Admittedly some of that increase may have been due to “motor voter” legislation enacted
in 1992.10 However, that four percentage point increase was far higher than the seven
other states which also enacted motor voting laws in 1992, suggesting Kids Voting played
a prominent role in increasing voter turnout.
How did letting young people vote encourage turnout among their parents? A
study by Stephen Chafee of Stanford University found that increased political discussions
between parents and children were the major factor in increasing turnout. Chafee
surveyed 457 students in San Jose, California, along with one parent of each student. One
half of the students surveyed had participated in the Kids Voting program.11
Chafee found that there was a strong correlation (.43) between exposure of
students to Kids Voting and discussions about politics between parents and children. 12
Parents of Kids Voting children were far more likely to discuss politics with their children
than those whose children had not been part of the program. 13
Chafee found that the effects of Kids Voting were strongest among parents of
children in lower socio-economic backgrounds. The correlation between exposure to the
Kids Voting program and increased political discussions between parents and children was
greater (.49) among parents from low income groups than it was among wealthier parents
(.33). This suggests that poorer parents, who are least likely to vote would be encouraged
to vote by the enthusiasm of their children. Finally, Chafee found almost no correlation
between exposure to Kids Voting and parents initiating political discussions with their
children (.08).14 This means that the young people themselves were starting these
discussions, which encouraged their parents to get out and vote.
Chafee also found a correlation between the Kids Voting program, and increased
knowledge among adults of candidates’ backgrounds (.22 correlation), and an increased
active reflection of the news (.15 correlation). Again there was a much greater correlation
among lower income parents (.37 and .26 respectively). 15
The fact that Kids Voting has its greatest impact among parents of children from
lower socio-economic backgrounds is especially important for the District of Columbia.
About 63% of District students receive free lunches, which require students come from
lower income backgrounds.16 The Kids Voting curriculum in Washington DC appears to
have had a positive impact on voter turnout in the District. If the program is brought back,
such effects would most likely occur again.
B. Young people will become politically active in their teens and remain active for a
In addition to adults, youth would benefit by a lower voting age. Young people
want to vote and would turn out in high numbers. Active participation in the political
process will lead to a lifetime of voting.
In order for young people to benefit from a lower voting age, they must first show
interest in elections and politics. Poll after poll suggests young people want the right to
vote. This interest begins early in childhood and continues into high school. In 1992,
Sesame Place, a children’s amusement park in the Philadelphia area, conducted a survey of
young people aged eight to twelve. It found that 89% wanted the right to vote.17 Among
teens, this interest in voting persists. A 1991 poll taken at a mock election in Minneapolis,
Minnesota found that 73% of teens 12-17 supported a voting age of sixteen.18 Young
people are ready and willing to vote, if given the chance.
Young people also have a strong interest in politics generally, despite the
conventional wisdom that they are much more concerned with other matters. A 1992
survey of 12-17 year olds conducted for the Washington Post found that 73% were very
interested or fairly interested in politics, while only 27% were not very interested or not at
all interested. About 95% of these young people viewed voting in a presidential election as
very important or fairly important. 19
In order for a lower voting age to succeed, young people would also have to turn
out in large numbers to vote. Available evidence from the U.S. and abroad suggests they
would do so.
In Germany in 1996, the State of Lower Saxony lowered its voting age to sixteen
in local elections. In results from the capital city of Hanover, sixteen and seventeen year
olds turned out at a higher rate (56.5%) than did 18-24 year olds (49%).
In the United States, no state or locality has set a voting age lower than eighteen.
We must examine evidence from Kids Voting and other mock election sources to
determine what turnout might be for young people, as well as the additional benefits of
youth political participation.
Kids Voting USA has been a huge success at getting young people to vote. In
1996, almost five million cast ballots in local, state and national elections. While five
million is only a fraction of the number of people aged 5-17, Kids Voting USA only
reached 40 states in 1996. In many of these states, only a few school districts operated the
The Kids Voting organization does not keep data on what percentage of students
in Kids Voting districts actually voted.20 It is possible, however, to evaluate Kids Voting
turnout based on information from particular districts. In 1994, in the District of
Columbia, more than half of all eligible students cast ballots.21 This is especially
impressive in an off-year election in which 40% of District adults voted. In 1996, Lee’s
Summit, Missouri saw 7,000 students turn out to vote, almost 60 percent of its student
population.22 In 1996, in Wake County, North Carolina, 43,000 students turned out to
vote when only 30,000 had been expected, causing polling places to run out of ballots.23
In 1998 mid-term elections, truly impressive turnout was seen in Shawnee County,
Kansas. Among students, 78% turned out to vote.24 This is especially high considering
some children under fourteen were kept from voting by nonvoting parents. Young people
were determined to cast their ballots, and did so in enormous numbers.
One more indication of young people’s interest in voting can be seen in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1991, the school district allowed young people to cast mock
ballots at polling places for a school board election. While only 5.6% of adults showed up
at the polls, 40% of teens aged 12-17 turned out to make their voices heard.25
Kids Voting students gain a great deal of political knowledge as well as enthusiasm
for the process. Stephen Chafee’s study found that San Jose Kids Voting participants were
more likely to have political discussions with parents or friends (.50 and .41 correlation
respectively), than non-participants. Again, as found in the survey of parents, these
correlations were more pronounced among children in the lower socio-economic strata
(.54 and .49 correlation respectively).26 Thus the impact in Washington will be greatest
among the District’s many low-income students.
Another survey, Bruce Merrill’s study of Kids Voting from the 1994 election,
further reveals student enthusiasm for the program. Merrill surveyed a total of 24,572
participants. Almost 70% wanted Kids Voting to be brought back to their school for the
next election, while only 11% preferred the program not return.27 The remaining students
Merrill’s survey also shows the extent to which the Kids Voting program helped
young people gain political awareness. More than 71% of students reported frequently or
occasionally questioning parents about elections at home. These same students also
viewed voting with great importance. About 94% felt it was very important or somewhat
important to vote.28
How can a lower voting age stop voter apathy among young adults and lead to
lifetime electoral participation? It can be done through the meaningful involvement of
youth in elections. Young people want to be a part of the process, but are too often told
their opinion does not matter. By the time many reach college, they are cynical of the
political system. A voting age of sixteen can introduce young people to the political
process before they become apathetic.
The lesson learned from Kids Voting in the District and elsewhere is clear: Young
people will become energized about elections in which they actively participate rather than
a merely observe. Young people want government to listen to them. A lower voting age
will do more than just increase youth interest in politics; it will provide a forum to
encourage government to address the concerns of youth.
II. A voting age of sixteen is the most effective way to make government more
responsive to problems faced by young people and adults.
A. Young people face problems that are inadequately addressed by government.
Young people are disproportionate victims of the major problems afflicting our
society. Poverty among young people exceeds all other age groups. In 1997, 19.9% of
young people lived below the poverty line, compared to only 10.9% of Americans aged
18-64, and 10.5% of senior citizens.29 A study by Gregory J. Duncan of Northwestern
University finds that among children who turned eighteen during the years 1988-1990,
35% were in poverty for at least one year of their life, and 14% spent six or more years in
poverty.30 Clearly the interests of poor Americans have not been fairly dealt with by
government. Welfare programs have been cut without adequate job training opportunities.
This is in part because so many of the poor do not vote. Some fail to vote because they
have no faith in the system. Many others can not vote simply because they are under the
age of eighteen.
Poor people in America are disproportionately young. While only about 25% of
Americans living above the poverty line are young people, 40% of poor Americans are
under the age of eighteen.31 The percentage for poor Americans of color is even higher.
About 46% of poor African-Americans and 48% of poor Latinos are young people.32
Increased voting strength among lower income residents would have a major
impact in Washington DC. The poverty rate in the District, 22.7%, is higher than in any
American state.33 Lower income residents in the district need to vote in order to insure
that their needs are being met. A voting age of sixteen will give thousands of Washington
residents from poor communities a voice in their local affairs. These new voters will be
less apathetic than their older siblings or parents, and may encourage them to vote.
Government will be more responsive to the needs of the poor if they turn out in greater
Young people also face a serious problem with crime. Teenagers are the most
likely victims of crime and face daily risks as they grow up in a threatening world. One
survey found that young people were most concerned about crime, with more than 50%
fearful of victimization.34 Another survey showed what many young people experience
daily. About 36% of teens considered crime to be a serious problem in their neighborhood,
and 14% had personally witnessed or been involved in fights that included the use of
guns.35 Among “at-risk” teens, living in poor, high crime neighborhoods, these figures
were much higher. Approximately 76% considered crime a serious problem in their
neighborhood, and 44% had personally witnessed or participated in gun fights.36 Young
people in the District face a particularly dangerous environment: The murder rate in
Washington DC, 55 murders per 100,000 residents, is over four times that of New York
City, and one of the highest in the country.37 Something must be done to stop this cycle of
While local, state and federal governments have not ignored the problems of crime
altogether, they have not fully addressed its causes. While more jails are being built, not
much has been done to prevent crime, especially involving young offenders. Young people
need to feel safe in their neighborhoods. They also need to have outside activities, such as
after-school programs and recreational activities, that will keep them off the streets and
away from becoming victims or perpetrators of crime. Partly because young people can
not vote, government at all levels has failed to provide them with these programs. Jail is
often the only answer given by government to solve the problem of crime. Prevention
often falls by the wayside. This needs to change.
Involving young people in the voting process would allow the most likely victims
of violent crime to have a say in how laws are enforced and criminals punished. Teens in
the District would feel more a part of their communities and less like outsiders who must
fear both street crime and over zealous police officers. While a lower voting age would
not prevent abuses of liberties, it would encourage young people to actively protect their
civil rights. They could vote out a mayor or council member who will not support crime
prevention programs, or who shields police officers who abuse the civil rights of young
The issue of the environment is another area where the concerns of young people,
as well as many adults, have been neglected by government. Young people have a very
strong commitment to the environment. A poll conducted by the 4-H Council and Honda
found that teens were even more committed to environmental protection than their
parents. Seven out of ten young people aged 13-18 were willing to pay an additional 50
cents per gallon of gasoline to protect the environment.38 Only 51% of adults in the
survey, aged 40-55, were willing to take such drastic measures to protect the
environment.39 Teens in the survey were also more activist in their support of the
environment. About 65% of them had personally participated in environmental volunteer
work, compared to only 53% of their parents.40 Another survey found that 32% of teens
considered environmental protection the issue they cared about most, compared to only
16% of adults.41
Young people have a unique view of the environment, that needs to be respected by government. Their commitment to the environment is based on the fact that
they will live with it the longest. They will have to clean up the environmental damage of
previous generations. The United States government has too often ignored major
environmental problems. Our government has yet to sign a treaty to reduce emissions
which harm the ozone layer and contribute to global warming. A lower voting age would
allow the environmental views of young people to be better represented in our
government. Young people could express their environmental commitment at the polls,
voting for candidates who support their positions. They could also have an impact on
environmental questions that face the District, particularly the clean-up of polluted
neighborhoods. With the right to vote, young people will have the political power needed
to help protect our planet’s future.
Another issue too often neglected by government is education. Throughout America, classes are crowded, school buildings are delapitated and test scores are down.
This is especially true in the District, where in 14 of the 18 public high schools, 94% of the
students tested below grade in mathematics.42 A survey by the District’s Financial Control
Board found that 12% of classrooms lacked textbooks when the 1996-97 school year
began and 20% lacked other important instructional supplies.43
Election day polls found that education was the most important issue across
America, selected by about 20% of voters.44 Yet despite this support, education
proposals often face uncertain futures. While most families support strong education
funding, their support is weakened in part by the fact that only adult family members can
vote. A single parent with three children has less voting power than a childless couple. As
a result, measures for increased education funding often fail by narrow margins. Youth,
unlike most adults, must live daily with intolerable school conditions. They see the
desperate need for improvement.
Would young people vote differently than adults? Available information suggest
they would be far more likely to support needed funding for their education. Two
examples of this can be seen from just this past election.
In Virginia Beach, Virginia, adults rejected a $57 million dollar bond proposed to
improve the city’s 17 oldest elementary schools by a 59%-41% margin.45 The proposal
would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home less than $35 dollars per year. Young
people who voted in the Kids Voting mock election felt very differently about the bond
issue. More than 72% of the 7,713 young people who voted supported the bond.46 A
similar result was seen in Springboro, Ohio. A $4.89 million dollar tax issue designed to
hire additional teachers was rejected by adult voters by a 54%-46% margin.47 Among
young people, however, more than 86% supported the tax.48 Young people saw their
interest was in supporting this legislation, even if some adults in the community did not. A
lower voting age would allow young people to help themselves improve their education,
and also provide additional votes for the many adults who strongly support education
Finally, young people’s concerns are not respected regarding the issue of social
security taxation. Despite an employment rate that hovers in the double digits among
teens, about 34.5% work either full time or part time.49 Teens between the ages of twelve
and nineteen earned a total of 14.4 billion dollars in 1994.50 While most young people pay
little or no federal income taxes, they do pay social security taxes, which removes 7% of
their income. Most young people doubt they will ever see the social security money taken
from their paychecks. A poll of 18-34 year olds found that more believed in the existence
of UFO’s (46%), than believed that social security would be available for them upon
retirement (28%).51 No doubt many teens feel the same way.
Yet government is unwilling to make the tough choices needed to save social security, whether that be higher taxes on elderly recipients, or partial privatization of the
system. This is in large part because too many college aged students fail to vote, and
younger teens can not vote. The elderly, on the other hand, turn out in large numbers to
protect their interests. Their natural reluctance to alter the system is accepted by
government because of their voting strength. They also have the considerable weight of
the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) behind them.52 A voting age of
sixteen would allow teens to express their point of view on the future of social security
and help to preserve it for their own retirements. These teen voters could speak out for the
social security concerns of numerous young adults who do not now vote, and perhaps
encourage them to go to the polls.
B. Youth Advocacy Groups are inadequate to represent youth interests and can not unite
young people and adults around issues that concern both groups.
A lower voting age would protect the interests of young people better than youth
advocacy groups. Organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) clearly have
many of the interests of young people at heart. The organization strongly supports crime
prevention measures, legislation to fight child poverty, and emphasizes the importance of
education. The problem with this organization is two fold: A lack of resources and a lack
of participation by the very people it aims to help: Young people.
Lack of resources is a serious drawback for the CDF. Data from 1996 reveals its
budget was only fifteen million dollars, compared to the AARP, which had a budget of
449 million dollars.53 The CDF can simply not make the same impact with its fight for
children’s issues that the AARP has made in its fight for the elderly.
Second, leadership of CDF is made up solely of adults. No people under 18 are in
any positions of power.54 In part because they can not vote, they are not recruited to
assist the organization. Thus young people feel isolated and alone. They have no interest
in working for an organization that fails to request the opinions of those it claims to
represent. If one could imagine an all white NAACP or an all male NOW, one can
understand how some young people might feel towards the CDF. This is very different
from the powerful AARP, whose enormous membership is made up entirely of the people
for whom it actually lobbies. Because older Americans can vote and do so in large
numbers, the AARP is able to command power and respect that the CDF simply can not.
The effect of the AARP’s clout compared with the lack of power of the CDF can
be shown by examining government spending on poor children and government spending
on poor seniors. A study by Paul Peterson found that in 1990 the government spent about
10 times as much on each poor senior as on each poor child.55 Spending per poor child
barely increased in real dollars between 1975 and 1990, while spending per poor seniors
grew by more than 50%.56 Peterson found that seniors had much more choice in how
they received their benefits. These benefits were also far more likely to be indexed for
inflation than benefits directed at poor children.
This difference in government spending has had a major effect on the poverty rates
of the young and old over the last three decades. Between 1969 and 1997, poverty among
the elderly fell rapidly, from 25.3% to 10.5%.57 During the same period, poverty among
young people increased from 14% to 19.9%. The strength of AARP is obvious: Its
well-organized members have successfully pressured government to provide funding to
help pull them out of poverty. The CDF simply does not have that same kind of clout
because young people can not vote and are not involved with its organization.
A lower voting age will encourage young people to organize along the lines of the
AARP, in their own interest. It will also better allow them to organize with the millions of
adults who share their views on education, crime prevention, poverty and the
environment. Even young people under sixteen, while unable to vote, will be encouraged
to organize politically. Thus, when they are able to vote they will able to show the kind of
political clout necessary to get the government’s attention. Partnerships between young
people and adults will allow both groups to be better represented and allow the vast
majority of citizens to better compete with special interests.
Evidence of this happening has already occurred abroad. In Iran, where the voting
age is 15, young people united with women of all ages and political moderates to elect
Mohammad Khatami, president of Iran.58 The new president is a moderate who seeks a
better relationship with the United States. If a progressive youth-adult coalition is possible
in a country as restrictive as Iran, certainly young people and adults in America can work
together for issues of common concern.
III. Arguments against lowering the voting age are unconvincing.
Several arguments are made by those who oppose a lower voting age. First, some
opponents claim that the voting age can not be legally lowered. Others claim that sixteen
might not be the most appropriate voting age. If young people turn out to vote in large
numbers, perhaps an even lower voting age would be beneficial. Some suggest that many
of the benefits of a lower voting age could be achieved simply by bringing Kids Voting
back to the District. Finally there are those who contend changes in the voting age should
be done at the national level, or that Washington DC is not the most appropriate place to
test a lower voting age. These arguments are simply unconvincing.
A. The voting age can legally be lowered to sixteen.
First, the voting age can be legally lowered in Washington DC. The City Council
has the authority to lower the voting age to sixteen, provided it follows proper procedure.
The Constitution does not bar a lower voting age. According to the Supreme
Court in the case of Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112; 91 S. Ct. 260 (1971), states can
set the voting age under Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution, which provides that
"The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,
shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof”. The Court interpreted this
passage as allowing states to set the voting age as long as it did not conflict with relevant
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment prohibits discrimination on the basis of age once a
citizen has reached the age of eighteen. It does not prohibit a state from setting a lower
voting age if it so chooses. While the District of Columbia is the federal capital of the United States, it is also
a city with its own laws and regulations. As the District is a hybrid between a state and a
federal possession, the procedure by which laws are passed is unique among American
The general clause which allows the City Council to pass legislation is found in the
DC Code, Section 1-204 (1995):
“Except as provided as provided in ' 1-206, 1-233, and 47-313, the
legislative power of the District shall extend to all rightful subjects of
legislation within the District consistent with the Constitution of the
United States and the provisions of this Act subject to all the restrictions
and limitations imposed upon the states by the 10th section of the 1st
article of the Constitution of the United States.”
Clearly the District has the statutory authority to lower the voting age. The
Council has passed legislation setting residency requirements, election dates and otherwise
effecting the times, places and manner of election. However, the proper procedures must
In order to change electoral regulations, the following steps need to be taken.
First, the legislation is introduced before the City Council and referred to the Committee
on Government Operations. Next, the committee sends the bill to the full council for a
vote. If it is adopted on first and second readings, the bill will be presented to the mayor.
If the mayor signs the legislation, it is transmitted to both houses of Congress for review.
Unless Congress votes to overturn the legislation, it becomes law. Although this process is
cumbersome, it can be successful through effort and determination.
B. A voting age of sixteen is the most appropriate age because young people have the
requisite knowledge and maturity.
Sixteen is the ideal voting age. Young people have the maturity to vote by the age
of sixteen, in large part because they are already engaged in other adult activities. In many
states, young people can marry at sixteen, either with or without parental permission. In
most American jurisdictions, sixteen year-olds can get a driver’s license.
Most importantly, at sixteen, many teenagers get their first job. Teens work in a
large variety of occupations ranging from fast food to retail to construction work.
Certainly teens who are responsible enough to manage the rigors of job and school, should
be responsible enough to vote.
Second, teenagers are intellectually mature enough to vote at sixteen. Most sixteen
year olds are in high school, and have taken classes in history, government and law. Thus,
they have the foundation for intelligent voting. Furthermore, in many school districts,
students are tested on the U.S. Constitution, their state’s constitution and sometimes other
documents as well. Passing these tests is often required to graduate from grammar school
or high school. Thus young people already have a basis of knowledge which they can draw
on to vote intelligently.
Young people in the District have greater political knowledge based on
participation in Kids Voting in 1994 and 1996. The program needs to be brought back to
further increase youth voting knowledge. Even without the Kids Voting program,
however, teens in the District have the intellectual maturity needed to vote for the reasons
Many opponents of a lower voting age cite polling data suggesting some young
people are ignorant of politics. Undoubtedly this is true. But the same can be said for
many adults, who are in no way prohibited from voting based on their ignorance. It may
be true, as one poll discovered, that 26% of all teens can not name the vice-president of
the United States.59 Adults should not take solace in their political sophistication,
however; an earlier survey found that 40% of adults could not name the vice-president
either.60 Most ignorant teens, like most ignorant adults, will simply choose not to vote.
The people punished by our present system are young people who want to vote and would
vote intelligently. Lowering the voting age would give an opportunity for the many
knowledgeable young people to make their voices heard.
A strong argument could be made that sixteen and seventeen year olds would be
more interested in politics, and would vote in higher numbers than 18-24 year olds. This
is suggested by the higher turnout of sixteen and seventeen year olds in Germany, as well
as the higher turnout out of teens in mock elections in the U.S.61 These teens still live at
home, and most are working no more than part time. They have contact with their parents
and access to information about candidates and issues.
Young adults, on the other hand, often have a great deal more on their mind than
electoral politics. They are tied down with school or work. Some are married and have
families to support. Many have moved to new communities, where they are unfamiliar
with local politics.
A voting age of sixteen would be better than a lower voting age because sixteen
year olds have more knowledge about politics than younger teens. Yet they are less
cynical and apathetic than college aged voters. They are old enough to understand politics,
yet young enough to have the time necessary to focus fully on it.
C. A voting age to sixteen would be better for youth than merely bringing Kids Voting
back to the District.
Some would suggest that the Kids Voting program should simply be brought back
to the District in order to educate young people and increase voter turnout. Certainly the
students of Washington, as well as their parents, would benefit from a return of Kids
Voting. But restoring Kids Voting only addresses half of the important issues discussed in
this proposal. Clearly, increasing interest among both young people and adults in the
electoral process can help stem some of the apathy that has plagued American politics.
However, this would do nothing to increase representation on important youth issues,
such as education, crime, poverty, social security preservation, and environmental
protection. These issues need the input of young people. This can only be provided by a
meaningful vote, which would force government to take youth interests seriously.
D. Beginning at the local level is the best way to grant youth the right to vote.
Others suggest that any change in the voting age should take place at the national
rather than the local level. They argue that changes in basic rights, such as voting, should
be debated in front of the entire nation. Giving a lower voting age to some sixteen year
olds, they insist, would be unfair. It should be either given to all or none.
This argument ignores the difficulties inherent in attempting to lower the voting
age through national legislation. The Supreme Court has decided that a state’s voting age
in state elections can only be lowered by the state itself or through a federal constitutional
amendment.62 Such an amendment, requiring a 3/4ths vote of all state legislatures, would
be almost impossible to ratify. While Congress could lower the voting age in federal
elections through simple legislation and presidential approval, that legislative body as
currently composed seems unwilling to take such a bold step. Working at the local level
allows for a spirited debate of the proposal, with success or failure determined on the
merits. Additionally, if the change turns out to be unsatisfactory, it will be easier to restore
the voting age of eighteen if it is done from the local rather than the national level.
E. A voting age of sixteen in Washington DC would set an example for the world to
Finally, Washington DC would be the perfect place in which to introduce this
proposal. As the nation’s capital, the District is a symbol for American democracy. It
would be the ideal laboratory to test out a lower voting age, and it would help publicize
this issue to the rest of the world.
A lower voting age in Washington DC would serve as a beacon to world,
encouraging other countries, as well as the rest of the United States, to follow its example.
All over the world, governments and political parties are moving toward lower voting
ages. In France, the education minister has suggested a voting age of sixteen so that
French teenagers will feel more of a part of the system.63 In England, the Liberal
Democratic Party has endorsed a voting age of sixteen as part of its platform,64 as has the
Scottish National Party in Scotland.65 In South Australia, the state is considering a voting
age of sixteen for its citizens.66 In Canada, a voting age of sixteen has been suggested
before, and may soon be again.67 These countries would be more willing to take a chance
with a lower voting age if they saw a program that worked, especially one that was
successful with America’s notoriously apathetic electorate. A lower voting age here would
encourage a bright, new era of a world wide expansion in suffrage.
A voting age of sixteen in the District of Columbia would achieve several
important goals. First, it would increase voter turnout. Surveys taken in districts
participating in the Kids Voting mock election program found that the program increased
turnout by as much as ten percentage points. This resulted from increased political
discussions between enthusiastic students and their parents. The program had its biggest
impact on the group of parents least likely to vote, those from lower socio-economic
strata. Here in the District, where a majority of public school students come from
low-income families, Kids Voting was an important addition to the learning process for
the two election cycles it was used.
A lower voting age would also increase political interest among young people
themselves. Polling shows most young people want to vote, and would turn out in large
numbers to vote. Their enthusiasm for politics, if properly nurtured, will carry over into
adulthood and lead to a lifetime of political participation.
A lower voting age would also encourage government to pay more attention to the
issues that most affect young people. Young people must struggle daily with poverty,
crime, and education woes. They have a strong kinship with the environment and actively
seek to preserve it. They are also concerned about preserving social security so that it will
be there for their retirement. Many adults feel the same way about these issues, but their
support is stymied by special interests. A lower voting age would bring active young
people into a coalition with adults for issues of common concern. This coalition will be
more effective than youth advocacy groups, which are weakened by a lack of funding and
an unwillingness to seek input from young people themselves.
Arguments used by opponents of a lower voting age can be successfully overcome.
The District of Columbia has the authority to lower the voting age because it is consistent
with the United States Constitution, and statute. Sixteen is the most appropriate voting
age because young people are mature enough and knowledgeable enough to vote. A
voting age of sixteen would be better than merely bringing Kids Voting back to the
District. It would compel government to listen to youth concerns, and encourage
coalitions between young people and adults to form. A change in the voting age is better
done at the local rather than the national level because it is much easier to achieve. It also
allows for an easier removal of voting rights if the change does not achieve satisfactory
results. Finally, Washington DC is the perfect place to test the progressive new concept of
a lower voting age. Countries around the world are considering lowering their national
voting age. If a voting age of sixteen can prove successful in America’s capital, other
countries would be more willing to make a bold move for democracy.