April 27, 2017

Things to do while waiting for Trump to go: Lower the voting age

Fair Vote - In one Maryland town, November 5, 2013 was no ordinary Election Day: it marked the beginning of a historic expansion of suffrage rights. On October 30th - the start of the city's early voting period - Takoma Park became the first city in the United States to open its polls in a general election to residents after they turn 16.

Voter turnout in Takoma Park's municipal election was notably low, a likely result of no contested races or referendums. Nevertheless, 16- and 17-year-old residents still came out to vote.

Turnout rates were significantly higher among 16- and 17-year-olds than that of the overall population. The official turnout number of the age group was 59 people, a total turnout is approximately 17% of eligible voters under 18 -- fully double the 8.5% turnout rate of eligible voters 18 and up. The difference in turnout is even starker when you consider registration rolls. Close to 42% of registered city residents under 18 cast ballots, which is four times the turnout rate of registered residents 18 and older.

During early voting on Friday, teenager Alanna Natanson became the first person in the United States under 18 to cast a ballot in a general election. While originally nervous that the process would be a difficult undertaking, Natanson said voting was easy in Takoma Park.

FairVote also spoke with 17-year-old Nick Byron at the polls on Election Day. Byron had advocated for 16-year-old voting when the charter amendment came before the Takoma Park City Council last spring, and continues to be an outspoken supporter of the policy. "16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote because they are rooted in their communities. 18-year-olds are going to college, while we are living with our parents, taking civics classes, and thinking about the city," Byron explained. 

Among a growing number of nations that extend voting rights to 16-year-olds in national elections are Argentina, Austria and Brazil - with studies in Austria confirming the value of the change over time. Scotland will allow 16-year-olds in its referendum on independence next year, and two of the United Kingdom's three largest parties now back the change for all British elections. Irish voters will likely vote on it in a national referendum in the wake of support for the change provided by a citizens assembly.

In the United States, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement of Tufts' University has been a strong supporter of the proposal. CIRCLE's Director Peter Levine wrote the mayor and city council a letter endorsing the proposed change. Levine asserted that "16 and 17-year-olds are not too young to vote." He cited a study finding that 16 and 17-year-olds' political knowledge is about the same as 21-year-olds', and quite close to the average knowledge of all adults. 

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