Lowering the Legal Age to Vote
Over the course of American history, the right to vote has seen substantial changes in who can or cannot act on the privilege. For example, in the earliest days of American history, only those who were white, male, property owners had the right to vote. In the many following years, African Americans gained the right to vote as well as women, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, and all discriminatory barriers were removed. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to eighteen in light of the Vietnam war on the grounds that if an individual is old enough to fight in the war, they are old enough to vote. Now that context has been provided; I suggest we look to a modern world issue in relation to voting rights. With heavy discussion, the general public and legal scholars alike propose this question: should a bill be ratified that allows the voting age to be lowered to sixteen? This discussion comes with two sides, for or against the said bill. Specifically, those for it often argue that those aged sixteen have the capacity to make well-informed decisions. Those against allowing youth aged sixteen to vote note that they simply do not have the political skill or efficacy to make decisions that hold such gravity. In this essay, I will summarize the perspective of the opposition, find common ground, and finally go into detail regarding my stance as well as offer a compromise.
[bookmark: _Hlk21002990]The statement that most often comes from the main opposition is this: at sixteen years old, our youth lack the political skills and efficacy to make decisions that hold such gravity. It is my understanding that this idea is rooted deeply in our school systems. The opposition most often says that in schools today and in general daily life, youth are not experienced enough in civics, and politics, or are affected enough by political decisions to have a stance on vote-required elections. Willis D. Hawley, a professor of political science at Yale University, argues that “school curricula in political education are inappropriate to the country’s needs” (Hawley 328). This argument lies in the education given to students specifically in their Sophomore or Junior year of high school because this period is when they are most likely to take civics courses along with American political science courses, and is also when individuals are sixteen years of age. Hawley sums up the argument against lowering the voting age by noting that our educational systems do not take proper action to instill a political drive into students that gives them the knowledge capacity to vote.
My position is that I believe students have the civic knowledge and responsibility as well as the political capacity to vote in the United States of America. Between myself and the main opposition, there are features of common grounds. For example, the opposition would argue that schools do not teach politics well enough in the American school systems, but they agree that it IS taught. I agree with the argument that schools could potentially do a better job of teaching politics and civics. The stance of the opposition and my own do not overlap in agreement in many ways, but rather only in the idea that the American school systems specifically pertaining to students aged 16 can do a better job of driving a sense of civic duty and political intelligence into school curricula.
In schools across the country, students gain an immense amount of knowledge in regard to civic duty and responsibilities that largely contribute to why they should be able to vote. This is largely due to the way they are structured. For example, my own school district has a student government in place at every single school that allows students to vote for those that they want to represent their own interests within the district. Every graduating class presently admitted to the school gets the chance to vote. This is only one form of how schools give students a chance to learn civic responsibilities. Another example is that most high schools require a certain amount of community service to so much as move on to the next year.
The figure above is taken from a survey done by two professors at Rutgers University, New Jersey, named Robert Atkins and Daniel Hart. To get this piece of evidence, they surveyed people of different age groups asking the same questions in regard to political skill, civic knowledge, and civic responsibility. As you can see, the figure shows that sixteen-year-olds participate in community service as often if not more often than anybody 18 or older, all of whom are allowed to vote. Allow me to elucidate; in the question of whether or not sixteen-year-olds hold the civic cognizance to vote at the local, state, or federal levels, I point to how they participate in giving back to their respective communities where we see they do more than those who are legally given the privilege of voting. While I’ve now severed any ambiguity regarding whether or not a sixteen-year-old has the civic interest and responsibility to vote, let us now focus on their political knowledge and skill.
Politics is taught well enough in American schools for students to have a solid enough foundation to participate in voting. Indeed, it is with the distinction that schools could do better. That being said, I digress. By age 16, our youth have grown up learning political skills, history, and general knowledge. Grace Meng, Ayanna Pressley, and Janice Schakowsky are all serving in the House of Representatives in their individual states. These three women have drafted a constitutional amendment that proposes lowering the voting age to 16, with evidence such as “the recent upspringing of “inspirational and passionate activism” by high-school-aged students, particularly on gun violence, health care, and climate change, is evidence that the younger population is ready for the ballot box”(Meng, Pressley, Schakowsky). This amendment has yet to be given consideration but goes to show that many of our representatives believe it is time our youth are empowered given they have the political drive and knowledge. It is without saying that I largely agree with these representatives. Our youth are both taught by the education system and personal experiences as well as culture to have a sense of politics whether they like it or not. At this age, political skill is as high if not higher than that of those in their 20s.
In this graph again provided by Robert Atkins and Daniel Hart we can see that at age 16 political skill is on par with those who are in their early or late twenties. This means that sixteen-year-olds are competent and retain the political wisdom to make voting decisions the same as their elders do. To further clear ambiguity, let us look at case studies in other countries.
Lowering the voting age has worked well in other countries and could allow for more participation in voting amongst a broader age range. A common piece of information that accompanies the argument of the opposition is that lowering the voting age won’t make more of our youth participants. To help provide clarification, I point to a case study done by Johannes Bergh, head of the Norwegian National Election Studies (NNES) program at the Institute for Social Research. The study focused on a trial in Norway where they lowered the voting age to 16. The result? The voter turnout of 16 -18 years was significantly higher than previously before by around 15%, thus showing both how successful lowering the voting age can be and potentially how it may affect voter turnouts in the lower age range. While other countries such as Austria have also had signs of success in lowering the voting age, I will not dive into that. Rather, I proclaim that if the United States were to lower the voting age, they would see a rise in the participation of young voters as indicated by the success of other countries.
It is with a full understanding of the opposition that I see a potential compromise between our two sides and the many arguments that join us. I acknowledge their main points, as well as offer my own reasoning for my final thoughts. Civic interest and responsibility as well as political skill and examples of other countries are what epitomize my argument. That being said, I understand the opposition to my stance in that students has not learned enough about politics to be able to make these decisions. With that in mind, I offer a potential compromise between my own argument and the opposition. To begin with, we should allow sixteen-year-olds to vote in local and state elections and in the local legislature. This compromise acknowledges that given their youth they may not yet have the political efficacy to vote on a federal level, but that can be judged later on depending on their participation on the local and state levels. To do this, I propose an amendment to state constitutions that give them this right. I am without a doubt saying that this compromise is both fair and achievable, and it serves an important role in our future.
- Hawley, Willis D. “Political Education and School Organization.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 10, no. 5, 1971, pp. 328–335. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1476139.
- Hart, Daniel, and Robert Atkins. “American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 633, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2011, pp. 201–22, doi:10.1177/0002716210382395
- Cirillo, Jeff. “Rep. Meng: Amend Constitution to Lower Voting Age to 16.” Roll Call, 15 Aug. 2018, https://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/meng-amend-constitution-lower-voting-age-16.
- Bergh, Johannes. “Does Voting Rights Affect the Political Maturity of 16- and 17-Year-Olds? Findings from the 2011 Norwegian Voting-Age Trial.” Electoral Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, Elsevier Ltd, 2013, pp. 90–100, doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2012.11.001.
- The United States. Congress. House. Committee on Rules, author. Providing for Consideration of the Bill (H.R. 1) to Expand Americans’ Access to the Ballot Box, Reduce the Influence of Big Money in Politics, and Strengthen Ethics Rules for Public Servants, and for Other Purposes, and Providing for Consideration of Motions to Suspend the Rules : Report (to Accompany H. Res. 172). [U.S. Government Publishing Office], 2019.