Should the Voting Age Be Lowered?

Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images

About 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, the lowest turnout of any age group.

In many states, 16-year-olds can drive and get a job, and must pay taxes on their wages. But one thing most of them aren’t allowed to do? Vote. That’s because the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1971, sets the voting age at 18. (Before then, most Americans had to be at least 21 to vote.)

Now, the wave of students calling for stricter gun laws in the aftermath of recent school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, has reignited the debate about lowering the voting age for federal, state, and local elections to 16. (A handful of U.S. cities, including Berkeley, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland, already allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections.)

Those in favor of the idea say young people are interested in and engaged in politics—and deserve to have a say at the polls. Plus, supporters argue, allowing younger teens to vote would encourage them to care more about the government.

But opponents say 16-year-olds aren’t ready for the responsibility of voting. They claim that most teens simply don’t know enough about the issues to make educated decisions at the polls. Instead of lowering the voting age, critics say, we should focus on improving civic education. 

Should the voting age be lowered? Two experts weigh in.

YES

The students who are calling for gun control in the aftermath of mass shootings in Texas and Florida are challenging the stereotype of American kids as lazy and uninterested in politics. Unfortunately, when it comes to electing lawmakers whose decisions about gun control affect their lives, these teens lack any real power. This needs to change.

Critics will no doubt raise questions about the ability of 16-year-olds to make informed decisions in the voting booth. Aren’t young people impulsive and hotheaded, their brains not fully developed enough to make good judgments?  

Not necessarily. Studies show that by age 16, young people can gather and process information, weigh pros and cons, and reason logically with facts. Teens may sometimes make bad choices, but they do not make them any more often than adults do.

Young people deserve to have a say in electing their national leaders.

There’s also a civic argument for allowing younger teens to vote. Take the dozen or so countries that allow people to vote at 16, including Argentina, Austria, Brazil, and Nicaragua. In such countries, voter turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds is significantly higher than it is among older young adults. 

That’s important because there’s evidence that people who don’t vote the first time they’re eligible are less likely to cast ballots regularly in the future. Considering that 18- to 24-year-olds have the lowest turnout of any age group in the U.S., allowing people to begin voting even younger—when they’re more likely to cast ballots—might increase future turnout.

The current push to lower the voting age is motivated by outrage that those most vulnerable to school shootings have no say in how such atrocities are best prevented. Let’s give those young people more than just their voices to make a change.   

—Laurence Steinberg
Professor of psychology, Temple University

NO

Student activism in the wake of mass shootings should be celebrated, but it would be a mistake to lower the voting age. Demonstrating is not the same as voting, which requires a higher level of civic responsibility and knowledge.   

In fact, test results show that many students lack a basic understanding of the structure and functions of the U.S. government. Many teens don’t even know the names of their U.S. senators or how to amend the Constitution. Instead of lowering the voting age, we should focus more on improving civic education.

The last time the voting age was changed was in 1971 during the Vietnam War, when it was lowered from 21 to 18. The argument was that if young people were old enough to fight and lose their lives in war, they should be able to vote for their national leaders. It’s hard to find such a powerful reason to lower the voting age today.

Many teens don’t know enough about politics to make informed decisions.

Since young people’s brains develop at an older age than scientists once thought, many states have raised the age at which teens are allowed to do certain things, not lowered it. For example, the age to drive a car without any conditions has increased from 16 to 17 or 18 in most states.

People in favor of allowing younger teens to vote say that it would increase overall turnout in U.S. elections. But that’s unlikely. Traditionally, young Americans are far less likely to cast ballots than their older counterparts.

If we decide that voting at 16 is worth considering, let’s experiment with it first. We could allow younger teens to vote in certain local elections, and study what effect it has. After all, voting is one of our most important civic duties. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.   

—David Davenport
Research fellow, Hoover Institution at Stanford University 

CORE QUESTION: What evidence does each writer use to support his claims? How does each writer address the other side’s arguments? Who do you think makes the stronger case? Explain.

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