Shah: A Long Time to Wait

Fighting disenchantment with politics begins young and at home.

by Rachna Shah | 11/2/17 12:45am

As a 17 year old, I can earn minimum wage and drive a car. I am therefore impacted by labor and employment, distracted driving and police misconduct. Until I am 18 years old, however, I do not have the right to vote on the national, state or local level.

In a democracy, we understand voting as an essential part of representative government. The political awareness and expectations of 16 - and 17-year-olds is increasing, due in part to greater civic education, among other factors. These students are therefore prepared and willing to engage in government. Lowering the voting age would provide them with the opportunity to do so. While lowering the voting age to 16 on the national level can still be debated, the same on the local level should not be. By giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections, we can foster civic ethos and advance civic action as they prepare for their futures before college.

At the age of 16 or 18, the impact a vote can have on national-level politics may seem miniscule and may lead to disenchantment with elections. However, the local landscape is different. Local elections are often viewed as insignificant, as indicated by an average of only 20 percent of voters registered on the national level voting in local elections, but it is here, in cities and towns across America, that nationwide policies are first tested. It was in Oakland, California, where local marijuana ordinances were developed in 2004. It was in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where a temporary 0.25 percent income tax hike was approved to improve public schools. A legalization committee for marijuana has recently been established in New Hampshire. Should police be required to wear body cameras? Should there be a portion cap on soft drinks? Issues such as these are primarily local responsibilities. Policy and its implementation are more likely to be affected quickly on the local level than on the national level. Flexibility on the local level allows for innovation. After all, it makes logical sense that it is easier to improve your town before the entire country, particularly in today’s time of great gridlock and polarization.

Four years ago, Takoma Park, Maryland became the first American city to lower its local voting age from 18 to 16. In 2015, Hyattsville, Maryland followed suit with approximately 250 newly eligible voters. These examples are signs of the policy’s potential to improve and expand. Globally, a larger-scale example can be seen in Austria, where 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in national and local elections. Studies there have shown that the quality of vote choice is not different between 16-year-olds and their older counterparts, countering the concerns of many. Citizens under the age of 18 also tend to have higher trust in civic institutions than older age groups. For this trust not to decline as they age, young people should be allowed to see how their actions can impact them as they move through life. This begins with voting.

After all, when voting in a local election, it is easier to see that each and every vote, including one’s own, counts. Young adults engage with the political arena in ways they believe they can make a difference. If they believe their votes can impact issues they care about, they are willing to vote, as seen in the high turnout for the Article 9 vote in Hanover this past May.

Currently, high voting turnouts among youth tend to be the exception rather than the norm. This can be changed if young people view voting alongside other means of political engagement, where they have the chance to share their interests and voices. Young people should be provided with the tools and space to build dialogue with policymakers to begin and maintain intergenerational dialogues from a young age. They can become engaged in the future of their local communities and improve representation in this way within the traditional framework of voting rather than by replacing this framework with a new one. There may be 15-year-olds who consider themselves civically and politically literate, and there may be 16- and 17-year-olds who do not. Yet it is at the arbitrary age of 16 where one begins assuming adulthood responsibilities. This should include the responsibility of voting.

Opponents of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote assert that they lack adult responsibilities, such as saving for retirement. Yet saving for college is also a responsibility. Others argue that 16- and 17-year-olds are not mature enough to vote, as their brains are still developing. However, states allow 16-year-olds to drive, which requires just as much if not more reasoned decision-making.

Engaging younger students with voting will also allow them to begin considering new perspectives and challenging their own. This requires voting to be the norm and a part of their present, whether it be for school board candidates that shape their education or local political leaders that shape how they interact with their communities, rather than one of their futures. While American schools try to increase civic engagement through mechanisms such as student council elections, many students blow them off as popularity contests rather than as elections similar to those on a local and national landscape. Moreover, the high school environment, where many students share similar interests, cannot be compared to a larger community, where groups are more likely to have vastly different and contradictory agendas.

To understand others, we must begin by understanding our local communities. In 2016, San Francisco voted on Proposition F, which would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. While the vote ultimately did not pass, it was a narrow “no” at 53 percent. The arguments put forth by opponents of lowering the voting age need to be reconsidered. Lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 will engage youth at a younger age with the voting process. We can only define the direction of our society if we are allowed to use the same tools as the rest of our society.