On March 7th, Congress defeated Ayanna Pressley’s proposal to lower the voting age to 16. Although it failed on the congressional floor, it didn’t fail to spark nationwide conversation. Appropriately enough, on the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, we are once again debating who should be granted the vote.
Critics point out that rights and responsibilities, such as military service, marriage, and jury duty, all start at 18. Moreover, politicians across the country, including several supporting lowering the voting age, have supported bills increasing the age of smoking, firearm ownership and criminal responsibility. How, then, can we reconcile these movements that seem to want to simultaneously lower and raise the age of responsibility?
If we look through the lens of effect, rather than cause (age), the reasons for these discrepancies become clear. Raising the age of criminal responsibility is meant to protect children from sinking into a life of crime and poverty. Serving in the military and smoking can cause lifelong physical and mental damage, especially on a developing brain. The brain keeps developing until about 25, so brain development isn’t necessarily the best benchmark for the voting age anyway—while it’s true that teens tend to rely more on the amygdala (and, therefore, our emotions) for decision-making than adults, this is more pronounced in short-term decisions with an instant punishment or reward rather than thoughtful decisions like voting.
The most import difference, though, is that voting is a right with the desired effect of giving citizens an opportunity to choose policies that will affect their lives and ensure politicians’ accountability to their constituents. Even those teens who would abstain from the vote would benefit from having themselves represented in the constituency. With teens in the voting booth, politicians would have to start consistently considering our interests and the issues that affect our lives. Some critics have suggested that teens don’t have “enough skin in the game,” often pointing to the fact that we generally don’t financially support ourselves. While it may be true that most teens are dependents, not only do many of us work and get taxed, but the very premise of this argument verges dangerously into the territory of property-based democracy—employment and dependent status should never be benchmarks of qualifications to participate in democracy.
Regardless of employment, teens’ “skin in the game” shouldn’t be up for debate. Not only will we be living with the effects of long-term national policies on climate change, healthcare, immigration, and more, local policies are affecting us right now. Massachusetts ballot question 3, for example, which would remove gender as a protected class, was a critical issue for many teens, which is the age group most likely to be openly transgender, as reported by the Williams Institute. Moreover, those who supported the question often pointed to the potential dangers of allowing people into the “wrong” bathrooms because it would present danger to children. Shouldn’t those children have a say in that, then?
The City of Boston recently initiated BuildBPS, a 10-year plan led by Mayor Marty Walsh to invest over $1 billion into Boston Public Schools. However, nobody currently enrolled in BPS had the chance to vote for our mayor, nor for any elected official who might have an impact on our education.
Perhaps the biggest argument about why teens aren’t qualified to vote is that we aren’t educated enough on civic issues. On one hand, I’m inclined to disagree. Teens, many of them ineligible to vote, were behind the March for Our Lives and the Standing Rock protests. Our own city boasts a rich tradition of youth civic engagement. The Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) has worked on initiatives including encouraging “action civics” and one resulting in the passage of a statewide law. The Mayor’s Youth Council, a group of 96 teenagers acting as drivers of city-improvement projects (one of which is lowering the voting age in Massachusetts to 16) conducts annual “youth lead the change” votes, in which 12- to 25-year-old Boston students, workers and residents vote on three capital projects to spend $1 million on. Past winning projects have included a homeless resource board, fans in schools, and a media center. Teens in Print, Boston’s only citywide student newspaper, regularly covers political issues, including BuildBPS, youth activism, and Ayanna Pressley.
That being said, however, I’d have to agree that public school civics education is lacking nationwide. Only nine states and DC require a full year of civics. But if the federal voting age was lowered, perhaps that would incentivize increased earlier civics education. In fact, that might be a good way to start the process: implement civics classes, then, after a predetermined number of years, lower the voting age to welcome a newly-educated population of engaged citizens.