BOSTON — Yes, it is time to lower the voting age to 16. Strong voter participation is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, and the United States ranks only 26th out of 32 developed countries in voter turnout.
Nearly six out of 10 Americans didn’t vote in the last midterm, and in most mayoral elections, fewer than 15 percent show up.
We can start to reverse this unacceptable and preventable status quo by providing more citizens the opportunity to establish strong voting habits earlier in life.
Voting in the first election you’re eligible for is critical to becoming a consistent, lifelong voter. For many, 18 is a difficult age to establish this habit as it coincides with new jobs or heading to college.
At 16, on the other hand, young people are in school, rooted in their communities, and are more likely to cast that first ballot. Voting at 16 would ensure every citizen can vote at least once during their high school years and establish the voting habit.
The evidence backs this up. In American cities that use a 16-year-old voting age for municipal elections, turnout for 16- and 17-year-olds has been significantly higher than for older young adults.
The same is true in European countries such as Austria where 16-year olds can vote in all elections.
This idea has been mischaracterized by some as intended to benefit the Democratic Party, but fostering engaged citizens is a deeply American ideal that transcends party lines. Lowering the voting age will likely also benefit both parties over time.
Those with a high school education or less lean right politically and that gap is widening. However, this group also turns out to vote at lower rates than those with a college education.
Thus, by making it easier for those who will not go to college to vote and make voting a habit, we could very well see an increase in participation among a group that is increasingly key to the conservative base.
Earlier voting isn’t just about habit formation; it’s also about honoring existing rights and responsibilities.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds work and pay taxes, and will face the repercussions of policy decisions made today for the rest of their lives, whether it is the ballooning national debt or our response to climate change. Lowering the voting age gives our representatives an incentive to pay attention to an overlooked constituency of tax-paying citizens.
Science also shows that 16-year-olds are ready to make informed decisions at the polls. Voting relies on the “cold cognition” decision making process, which is fully developed at 16, and does not improve with age.
Lowering the voting age sounds like a bold idea. Many ideas we now take for granted were once looked at the same way.
In 1939, 83 percent of Americans opposed an 18-year-old voting age. But 32 years later it became the law of the land and now it is tough to imagine it any other way.
The push for 16-year-old voting is in early stages but is making real strides. Last month, 126 members of Congress supported the idea on the House floor. Around the country, cities and states are leading the way in considering laws that would implement a lower voting age on the local level first.
Lowering the voting age to 16 will increase participation in the long run and make our democracy more representative. It is a bold, necessary idea and the evidence shows it works. It is time to get on board.