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 income families.
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 difficult.
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 determining factor.5
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%).9Admittedly 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 lifetime.
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, several German states lowered their voting age to sixteen for local elections. The results were impressive. In Lower Saxony’s capital city of Hanover sixteen and seventeen year olds turned out at a higher rate (56.5%) than did 18-24 year olds (49%). 20In the state of Bransscheig, male voters under eighteen turned out at a 52.5% clip, besting turnout for male voters aged 18-45. Likewise 16-18 year old female voters turned out at a higher rate (48.5%) than females 18-25 (42.6%). In 1999, the state of Sachsen Anhalt lowered its voting age, with similar results. In the city of Kreisfreie, under eighteen voters turned out at a higher rate than voters aged 18-30.21
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 program.
The Kids Voting organization does not keep data on what percentage of students in Kids Voting districts actually voted.22 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.23 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.24 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.25
In 1998 mid-term elections, truly impressive turnout was seen in Shawnee County, Kansas. Among students, 78% turned out to vote.26 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.27
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).28 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.29 The remaining students were undecided.
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.30
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.31A 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.32 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.33 The percentage for poor Americans of color is even higher. About 46% of poor African-Americans and 48% of poor Latinos are young people.34 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.35 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 numbers.
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.36 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.37 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.38 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.39 Something must be done to stop this cycle of crime.
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 people.
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.40 Only 51% of adults in the survey, aged 40-55, were willing to take such drastic measures to protect the environment.41 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.42 Another survey found that 32% of teens considered environmental protection the issue they cared about most, compared to only 16% of adults.43
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.44 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.45
Election day polls found that education was the most important issue across America, selected by about 20% of voters.46 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.47 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.48 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.49 Among young people, however, more than 86% supported the tax.50 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 funding.
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.51 Teens between the ages of twelve and nineteen earned a total of 14.4 billion dollars in 1994.52 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%).53 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.54 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.55 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.56 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.57 Spending per poor child barely increased in real dollars between 1975 and 1990, while spending per poor seniors grew by more than 50%.58 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%.59 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.60 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 constitutional amendments.
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 jurisdictions.
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 be used.
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 discussed above.
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.61 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.62 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.63 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.64 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 follow.
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.65 In England, the Liberal Democratic Party has endorsed a voting age of sixteen as part of its platform,66 as has the Scottish National Party in Scotland.67 In South Australia, the state is considering a voting age of sixteen for its citizens.68 In Canada, a voting age of sixteen has been suggested before, and may soon be again.69 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.
- “Turnout: Debunking the Low Turnout Benefits GOP Myth?”. The Hotline, November 6, 1998.
- “US Voter Turnout Lowest in Any Presidential Race”, Reuter’s World Service, November 6, 1996.
- Kids Voting began on a trial basis in Arizona in 1988. By 1996, it had expanded to 40 states and the District of Columbia, with over 4.5 million students participating.
- John Stuart Hall, “Elections and Civic Education, the Case of Kids Voting USA”, National Civic Review, Spring 1998, 79.
- Karen Brady, “Kids Voting New York Encourages Adults to Vote”, The Buffalo News, October n29, 1998, 8F.
- James Simon and Bruce Merrill, “Political Socialization in the Classroom Revisited: The Kids Voting Program”, The Social Science Journal, Volume 35, No. 1, 1998, 33.
- “Turnout: CSAE Pegs it at 48.8%; Maine Has Highest at 64.5%”, The Hotline, November 8, 1996.
- Johnson, Thomas J. Editor. Engaging the Public: How Government and the Media can Reinvigorate American Democracy. Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (Lanham, Maryland, 1980), 160.
- “Motor Voter” laws allow voter registration concurrently with obtaining driver’s licenses, welfare benefits and other public services. A national motor voter laws went into effect with the 1996 presidential election.
- Ronald D. Utt, “What to about the Cities”, Heritage Foundation Reports, September 1, 1998, 1.
- “Children Favor President Bush in Sesame Place Poll”, PR Newswire, June 25, 1992.
- Education Week on the Web, November 27, 1991, Web Site. http://www.edweek.org/ew/vol-11/13boxh11
- Sharon Warden, “Teen Views on America and Politics”, Washington Post, October 30, 1992, E1.
- “Teens Show Voting Desire in Germany”. Phoenix Gazette. September 19, 1996
- “Wahlect am 16” “Right to Vote [at] 16” http://www.lars-tietjen.de/download/beteiligung.pdf (translation by www.altavista.com)
- Cynthia Dunne, Kids Voting Executive, email correspondence, October 19, 1998.
- Richard C. Tenwolde, “Teaching Ballot Box Practices”, Washington Post, November 17, 1994, J1.
- Lewis W. Diuguid, “Project Gives Children an Election Role”, Kansas City Star, October 31, 1998, 2.
- Treva Jones, “Wake Kids Get to Cast their Ballots Too”, Raleigh News and Observer, October 31, 1998, 2.
- “Success Habit Forming”, Topeka Capital Journal, November 20, 1998.
- Education Week on the Web, November 27, 1991, found at the Education Week Web site, http://www.edweek.org/ew/vol-11/13boxh11
- Johnson, Thomas J. Editor. Engaging the Public: How Government and the Media can Reinvigorate American Democracy. Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (Lanham, Maryland, 1980), 161.
- James Simon and Bruce Merrill, “Political Socialization in the Classroom Revisited: The Kids Voting Program”, The Social Science Journal, Volume 35, No. 1, 1998, 36.
- US Census Bureau, Web Site. Historical Poverty Tables, http://www.census.gov/ftp/pub/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov3.html
- Trends in the Well Being in America’s Children and Youth, 1997 Edition, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Department of Health and Human Services, Web Site. http://aspe.os.dhhs.gov/hsp/97trends/Es1-4.htm
- US Census Bureau, Web Site. Historical Poverty Tables, http://www.census.gov/ftp/pub/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov3.html
- US Census Bureau, Web Site. Historical Poverty Tables, http://www.census.gov/ftp/pub/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov19.html
- Cassandra Sprratling, “Violent Crime, Kids Top Fear, Poll Reveals”, The Fresno Bee, November 20, 1993, A6.
- Laura Meade Kirk, “Fear of Crime Pervasive Among Teens, Poll Finds”, The Dallas Morning News< January 21, 1996, 8F.
- Ronald D. Utt, “What to Do About the Cities”, Heritage Foundation Reports, September 1, 1998.
- William Strauss, “Grandpa Sure Would Like this Earth Day”, USA Today, April 22, 1998, 15A.
- “Concern for the Environment Spans Generations in the US”, Greenwire, April 21, 1998.
- “Earthview No Generation Gap on Environmental Issues; Teens and Boomers Want More Vigilance from Government and Industry”, PR Newswire, April 21, 1998.
- “Society and Politics-Kids: Poll Finds They are Greener than their Parents”, American Political Network, Greenwire, January 30, 1992.
- “How DC Schools Rate in Math, Reading Skills”, Washington Post, January 8, 1998, 4-5.
- Valerie Stauss and Sari Horowitz, “Students Caught in Cycle of Classroom Failures”, The Washington Post, February 20, 1997, A1.
- Edwqard Mahoney, “Split Tickets: Voters Bring Personal Concerns to the Polls”, The Hartford Courant, November 4, 1998, A1.
- Katrice Franklin, “Beach Says No to More Taxes: Referendums on Schools, Libraries, Fail, The Virginia Pilot (Norfolk, Va.), November 4, 1998, A1.
- “Springsboro School Tac Issues Does Better with the Kids”, Dayton Daily News, November 6, 1998, 1B.
- Robin E. Blumner, “We Give Teen Adults Duties but Treat Them Like Brats”, The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), April 6, 1997, AA6.
- Tricia Serju, “Creative Teen Entrepreneurs Fins New Paths to profit”, The Denver Post, March 1, 1995, F-01.
- “Social Security Poll Otherworldly”, Wisconsin State Journal, March 19, 1997, 11A.
- See II, B. below, for more discussion of the political power of the AARP.
- Jack Hitt, “Future Shock”, New York Times, June 14, 1998, 9.
- Email from Yana Nabutovsky of the Children’s Defense Fund, November 17, 1998.
- Paul Peterson, “An Immodest Proposal”, Daedalus, Fall 1992, 157.
- US Census Bureau, Web Site. Historical Poverty Tables, http://www.census.gov/ftp/pub/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov3.html
- “Iran Elects Moderate; New Prez Whips Conservatives”, Toronto Sun, May 25, 1997, 11.
- David L. Greene, “Pop goes the Knowledge; Survey: Teens Know More About Hanson than Jefferson, Prompting Call for a Museum of the Constitution”, The Baltimore Sun, September 3, 1998, 1F.
- Richard Morin, “Who’s in Control? Many Don’t Know or Care; Knowledge Gap Affects Attitudes and Participation, The Washington Post, January 29, 1996, A1.
- See Section I. B., above.
- See Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 91 S.ct. 260, (1971).
- “French Minister Backs Early Voting Age”, Xinhua News Agency, January 4, 1998.
- Brian Walters, “Cut Voting Age to 16, Urges Ashdown”, South Wales Evening Post, October 2, 1998, 10.
- David Scott, “Parties Offer Lower Voting Age”, The Scotsman, April 19, 1997, 7.
- “SA: Vote Should be Given to Sixteen Year Olds”, AAP Newsfeed, October 9, 1998.
- “16 Year-Olds Urged to Get Federal Vote”, Toronto Star, September 3, 1991, A18.