The people permitted to vote in the United States (or in their own nation) are a population demographic continually evolving. Hardly more than a century ago, the primary voting block in many nations involved only white men who owned property. Now many countries allow everyone the right to vote when they reach a specific age.
The 26th Amendment was ratified by the states in the U.S. in 1971. This change to the Constitution shifted the legal voting age from 21 years old to just 18. Similar statutes are found in most countries which permit voting around the world.
Now a new debate is gaining momentum: should the legal voting age be dropped to 16?
There are several pros and cons to lowering the voting age to 16. Do teens still in high school have the political savvy to vote intelligently? Would the votes of these teens be unduly influenced by their homes, teachers, or mentors?
These are the vital points to review.
List of the Pros of Lowering the Voting Age to 16
1. It follows a pattern we already use in society.
If the voting age were lowered to 16, then most voters would be sophomores, juniors, or seniors in high school when voting in their first election. That isn’t much different than what happens when teens at 18 vote already, as most are either juniors or seniors in high school. Although the youth of any country may offer different priorities for the future than older voters, they will one day be in charge of the country. Voting helps them learn how the civic process works in society on a personal level.
2. It develops healthy civic habits in teens.
Younger children are influenced by their home environment when learning at school. For teens, it’s a different story. A majority of their academic achievements tie directly to the personal experiences they have in life. If we were to lower the voting age to 16, we would begin the creation of a healthy habit of civic responsibility at a time in life when they are most influenced by what happens to them.
3. It follows a pattern that the world has found to be successful already.
There are a cluster of suburbs around Washington, D.C. which have already lowered the voting age from 18 to 16, three of which are in Maryland: Greenbelt, Hyattsville, and Takoma Park. Teens at the age of 16 can vote in the school board elections in Berkeley, CA. Several states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in state and presidential primary elections if they will turn 18 before the general election.
Several countries already allow voting at the age of 16 too. Austria, Argentina, Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil, Nicaragua, and three self-governing British Crown Dependencies all permit the lower voting age already. Teens at the age of 16 can vote in Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro if they have a job.
4. It also follows a legal precedent set in the United States.
When a child commits certain crimes in the U.S., the law permits them to be charged as an adult. There are currently 13 states which do not have a minimum age at which a child can shift into adult court, allowing for the prosecution of eight-year-olds into the adult corrections system. We recognize in our child labor laws that kids under the age of 14 are impulsive and immature, without the same capability for moral judgment as older children.
States which have set a minimum age often have it somewhere between 10 to 13 years old. By lowering the voting age to 16, the U.S. would balance out its system of justice by offering those who could be charged as an adult the opportunity to have a say in how their social structures protect and help them.
5. It takes into account their contributions to society.
Teens can sometimes lack regulation of their emotional state as they continue developing. Impulse control is an issue for many youths. The same could be said for many adults too. There are plenty of 18-year-olds (and much older adults) who struggle with their decision-making skills also. That process doesn’t tend to regulate itself until around the age of 25 for many individuals. If turning 18 creates a “magic number” where these issues are no longer an issue, society can declare that 16 becomes that number in the future.
6. It allows teens to learn multiple layers of responsibility.
The standards for agricultural employment in the United States allow children under the age of 12 to work on farms outside of school hours with parental consent when the minimum wage requirements do not apply. Kids as young as 10 can hand-harvest crops outside of school hours between June-October each year if their employer holds a special waiver. Kids of any age can work on a farm owned or operated by their parents.
At the age of 16, teens may work in any farm job at any time. They can also work in most other employment venues outside of school hours (and sometimes even during school, depending on their situation). If they can hold a job and manage other life responsibilities as an adult, it makes sense to give them additional rights as an adult too.
7. It would offer new voices to the political debate.
Teens at the age of 16 have a unique experience to share with the rest of the world. Some hold jobs, most go to school full-time, and many have family responsibilities to share. They play sports, volunteer in their community, and contribute in many other ways. By adding their perspectives to the political debates, these young people could shift the structure of polarization that has crept into global politics. When you have more voices and ideas available to you as a society, then you have more access to innovation.
List of the Cons of Lowering the Voting Age to 16
1. It might lower the voter turnout rates even further.
The last presidential election in the United States offered a voting population of over 120 million people. About 73 million votes were cast that year, creating a voter turnout rate of more than 60%. When the 1972 election came along, which was the first election that 18-year-olds could legally vote in, the participation rate fell by 5.6%. Although 4.6 million more votes were cast in that election, there were 20 million additional voters in the population which didn’t cast a ballot.
The same pattern could occur if 16-year-olds were given the right to vote. Younger voters typically turn out at much lower rates. In the 2012 election, for example, only 46% of Millennials voted, but 72% of the Greatest and Silent generations made it to the polls.
2. It could shift the patterns of voting in the country.
10% of a teen’s decisions come from their home environment. Children at the age of 16 are still influenced by their parent’s behaviors, standards, and perspectives. Kids pattern their belief structures, from spirituality to politics, on the ideas they see and hear at home. That means the votes of these young teens would likely duplicate the ballots of their parents. Although that would be their right, it does cause one to question whether that would be an authentic vote or one that is manipulated.
Imagine a liberal (or conservative) family learning that their teen voted for a different candidate. How would we as a society handle a parent potentially disciplining their dependent child because of a vote? Questions like these must be answered before approval of such a measure occurs.
3. It would encourage risky behavior.
Teens already take more risks than adults. They have higher smoking rates, higher texting while driving rates, and practice safe-sex less often. Teens at the age of 16 are going through physical changes, including brain development, which creates emotional instabilities that lead to rebellion. Giving them the right to vote in these circumstances could be helpful for some teens, but it may also be destructive for others. There will be teens who vote a specific way because they know it will spite their parents.
4. It may offer voting rights without a clear understanding.
Teens are more social today with online networks than ever before. They are exposed to more information with Internet access than any other generation before them. Having access to data is not the same as understanding it. With all the time pressures present on the average 16-year-old, from school to work to athletics and everything in-between, they may not have enough time to thoroughly study the critical issues up for debate in an election. Having them guess at who is a better candidate is not the same as understanding the issues through discussion.
5. It follows the same precedence as other age-related restrictions.
We do not ask 16-year-olds to sit on a jury in the United States. Some areas don’t permit kids below the age of 18 to drive. There are hour restrictions in place for many teens during the school year. Most teens cannot enter into legal agreements without parental permission. Most banks and lenders around the world do not issue financial products to teens until they reach 18 – and some wait until 21. Voting restrictions on 16-year-olds follow these same standards. We don’t permit specific responsibilities because we recognize that as a whole, the youth demographic is not ready to handle them.
There are always exceptions to the rule of maturity and age in teens, of course, which is why they’re already permitted to be politically active at 16. They can work on political campaigns, volunteer for candidates, and promote specific issues. Even without a vote, there are many 16-year-olds who influence elections.
6. It creates a logistics concern.
Giving teens the right to vote at 16 creates safety concerns for them and their parents. If it is their right to vote, then they must have access to a ballot box in some way. Rural families may not have a way to get their teen to their poll location. Urban families may struggle with the idea of sending their child on public transportation without supervision. Just because you receive a mail-in ballot doesn’t mean that’s how you must vote. The logistics of getting 16-year-olds to a voting station when their parents don’t have the means to make that happen creates a series of challenging questions which must be asked.
7. It could change the outcome of elections.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that Congress could lower the federal voting age, but it did not have the power to set the voting age for local or state elections. That’s why the 26th Amendment was proposed in the first place. The Amendment was ratified in just four months, which was the shortest period of any in history. By giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, it shifted the views of society and arguably changed many elections at the local level because of a shift in demographics. Lowering the voting age to 16 would do the same.
These lowering the voting age to 16 pros and cons must balance the rights of the individual with the needs of each nation. Those who have lowered the voting age have found much success with its results. The U.S. would likely experience the same outcome, despite the risks involved.