On March 11, The Boston Globe ran an opinion piece by Jennifer Braceras about why lowering the voting age to 16, as recently proposed by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, is a bad idea.
The article points out that rights and responsibilities, such as serving in the military, getting married without parental consent, and jury duty, all start at 18. Moreover, politicians across the country, including several supporting lowering the voting age, have also 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 for decision-making than adults, which means that we use our emotions more, this is more pronounced in short-term decisions with an instant punishment or reward rather than thoughtful decisions like voting.
Most importantly, though, voting is a right—not a privilege, as stated in the article—with the desired effect of giving citizens an opportunity to choose policies that will affect their lives and ensure politicians’ accountability to their constituents. And teens dohave great interests in policy and the people behind it—Braceras claims that teens simply don’t have enough “skin in the game,” but, frankly, this is misguided.
Not only will teens be affected by long-term national policies in areas like climate change, healthcare, and immigration, we are affected by the policies currently being passed on the local level. 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 $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.
Braceras also raises a common concern: teens 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 advisers on policy and 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.
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.