In 1971, the 26th Amendment was officially ratified. The actions of the Amendment allowed the voting age to be reduced from 21 to 18. As certain municipalities and states debate the merits of having teens as young as 16 be able to vote, the pros and cons of lowering the voting age have become a nationwide debate in the United States.
The U.S. is not trying to set a precedent through the debate to lower the voting age. There are several countries which already allow voting at the age of 16, including Argentina, Austria, and Brazil.
Some communities in the United States already allow for younger teens to vote in local elections as well.
As we have seen in 2018 with the debates centered around gun laws and violence in U.S. schools, today’s teens are smart and savvy. To some, it makes sense to give them the right to vote. For others, the idea of teens as young as 16 voting is an idea that is potentially dangerous.
Here are the two sides of the debate to consider.
List of the Pros of Lowering the Voting Age
1. Lowering the voting age would create more democracy.
Democracy is defined by the ability of people to choose their representatives on their own. In a true democracy, each person would be given the opportunity to vote. In the U.S., that responsibility is delegated to the parents of a child without giving the parent an opportunity to vote on their behalf. Each qualifying adult receives just one vote. By shifting the voting age to 16 or 17, the results of each election would become a better representation of the majority of the population.
2. It could improve voter turnout rates.
Lowering the voting age could improve the voter turnout rates for U.S. elections as well. Young voter engagement has not been over 50% during an election since 1964 in the United States. In comparison, the voter engagement rates for adults 45-64 has rarely been below 70% since 1964. Historical trends have shown all voter engagement rates are decreasing. By lowering the voting age, the U.S. would be bringing in more people who would potentially be willing to cast a ballot.
Parents also tend to vote more often when they want to set an example for their children. Spikes in parental voting involvement occur when their children reach a voting age. If the voting age is lowered, parents would still likely follow this trend.
3. The involvement of more people creates more innovation.
If you have 5 people in a room together, you have the potential for 5 different perspectives. Double that figure to 10 and you’ll double the number of perspectives that are available. That is the power of diversity. When people from different ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities come together, innovation happens. Ideas are merged together to create brand-new opportunities. Lowering the voting age would bring millions of new youthful perspectives into each election cycle.
4. Teens are already permitted to have some adult responsibilities.
Teens are permitted to legally work in the United States at the age of 14, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. In some jobs, such as farm work, delivering newspapers, umpiring, acting, or babysitting, kids under the age of 14 can have jobs too. If teens are permitted to hold a work permit so they can earn an income and pay taxes, then shouldn’t they also have the right to vote? In the U.S., the history of taxation without representation is a foundational component of the country.
5. Teens can be criminally charged as an adult already.
If a minor commits a serious offense in the United States, then the criminal justice system has the authority to charge a teen as an adult. That means, upon conviction, the teen would also be sentenced as an adult. Every state in the U.S. allows for some teens to be transferred to the adult courts. If a teen can spend life in prison if they commit enough serious offenses, the argument could be made that a teen should also have the right to vote and have a say in such a structure.
6. Teens make rational choices.
Although teens tend to have trouble with elements of emotional regulation and impulse control, their ability to make logical, rational decisions is already developed. Their thinking process is similar to that of an adult during periods of calm. That means teens have the ability to weigh the pros and cons of each issue being discussed in an election and reason logically about what actions they should support.
7. It develops a habit of societal engagement.
Many of the habits that people develop during the ages of 16 and 17 become a routine part of their adult life. Just 10% of a teen’s academic achievement can be directly associated with the quality of their home life. It is the experiences that teens choose that make it easier for them to develop healthy habits in the future. By encouraging voting at a younger age, the habit of being engaged with society forms earlier, creating a better chance that the teen voter will become a regular adult voter.
List of the Cons of Lowering the Voting Age
1. Lowering the voting age could lead to manipulated voting patterns.
Children have a certain innocence about them when it comes to the world. Before the age of 8, most children believe that the information they see in an advertisement is an absolute fact. There is a complete trust in those around them. Even as children turn into teens and begin to explore who they are and want to be, there is a tendency to lean on the beliefs of their parents. By lowering the voting age, one would be duplicating many of the votes that parents are already casting.
Youth are more likely to be swayed by populism than older voters. Because of the size of the voting bloc, a shift in the legal voting age would likely create a shift in the pitches that politicians make on the stump.
2. There are more risks taken by teens than older adults.
According to information compiled by the CDC from various sources, the smoking rate for high school students is as high as 24% when e-cigarettes are used. The adult smoking rate, in comparison, is just over 16%. From condom use to texting while driving, teens are much more likely to take risks than adults. That behavior could translate to the ballot box, which means a true majority vote may not be achieved.
3. Younger voters may not understand all the issues.
Let’s take a look at the average school day for a high school student in the United States. They are going to be in school for about 7 hours, with the lunch hour included. They will spend 1-2 hours at an athletics practice. They’ll spend another 1-2 hours performing an extra-curricular activity, like studying a martial art. Then they’ll spend another 1-2 hours on their homework. On a busy day, that means 13 hours have already been used. That leaves many younger voters without enough time to fully understand critical issues in an election to form an informed opinion.
4. Voting is not required to be politically active.
Teens are permitted to be politically active in several different ways in the United States already. Teens are permitted to form political action committees. They can organize political campaigns. Some can even work on political campaigns in certain jobs. Teens can be involved with a political club at their school. They can engage in civil politics through volunteer opportunities. Voting is just one way to have a voice heard. If teens aren’t politically engaged in these other opportunities, adding another one is not a guarantee that they will take advantage of it.
5. There are already laws in place that govern teen behavior.
Voting isn’t the only action or behavior that specifically targets teens and youth. Unless a teen is legally emancipated, for example, they are generally not permitted to work a full-time job. Credit card lenders are not permitted to issue a line of credit to someone who is 16. Teens under the age of 18 are not allowed to participate on juries. In many instances, teens cannot even enter into a legal contract without their parents’ permission. That puts the voting restriction in-line with other areas that govern choices.
6. It may be difficult for some teens to cast a ballot.
In the United States, there has been a push to raise the driving age to 18. If teens are allowed to vote, they would be required to walk to their polling center, take public transportation, or hitch a ride with friends or family. There are mail-in ballots, absentee ballots, and electronic ballots that could be cast in some jurisdictions to counter this issue somewhat, though the right to vote on election day would still need to be recognized. There would need to be infrastructure improvements made to accommodate the need to transport teens for voting purposes.
7. It would likely change elections.
As of 2016, Pew Research Center reports that 48% of voters identify or lean toward the Democratic party. 44% of voters identify or lean toward the Republican party. In the 18-35 age category, if forced to choose between the two parties, 57% say they identify or lean toward Democrats. It is only as people age that they begin to identify more with the Republican party. By allowing teens as young as 16 to vote, current data suggests that there would be 3 votes for Democrats for every 2 votes for Republicans, which could change the outcome of elections.
8. Lowering the voting age would likely change other areas of consent.
During the movement for ratification of the 26th Amendment, one of the slogans that was often repeated was, “Young enough to die, young enough to vote.” That is because 18-year-olds can be drafted into the U.S. military, so giving them the right to vote made sense to many at the time. If the voting age is lowered again, the age of consent would likely be lowered in other areas as well. That could mean the military draft age could be lowered, criminal responsibility ages would be lowered, and sexual contact consent could be lowered.
The pros and cons of lowering the voting age offer several benefits and come with several risks. Could today’s teens take risks and vote in ways that are unpredictable or potentially dangerous? Sure, they could.
Could today’s teens educate themselves about modern civil matters, current events, and social issues to cast meaningful votes in each election? Sure, they could.
The bottom line here is this: unless 16- or 17-year-olds are given the right to vote, the pros and cons debate, from a U.S. perspective, is only conjecture. It is a policy which has been successfully implemented in other areas of the world. That means it could be successfully implemented for Americans too.