Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

Farah Daredia

Lowering the voting age is what’s best for the future of democracy. Our political system is shaped not by theory, but by participation. America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among countries in the developed world: with a 55.7% voting-age population turnout, the US places 30th out of the 35 most developed countries (Pew Research). Democracy requires voter participation from all backgrounds and ages: when citizens aren’t voting, politicians aren’t creating policies that are in our best interest. But lowering the voting age increases voter turnout, throughout all ages. When 16- and 17-year-olds who live with their parents are eligible to vote, there’s a “trickle up effect.” Their parents and other adults who live with them will likely also be mobilized to vote.

But not only will lowering the voting age to 16 lead to more engagement for adults, it will also empower young people as citizens, both now and in the future. Civic education in our country is lacking: 11 states don’t require civics to graduate, and 70% of high school students say they haven’t written a political opinion (Brookings Institute and Forbes. This might be a cause for concern; how can students possibly be expected to vote at a young age if they aren’t even aware about politics? But right now, the reason many schools and students don’t take civic education seriously is because it isn’t seen as a necessity. By the time students actually have any political power through voting, they’re out of high school, so civic education seems as though it’s more of a far off problem than a direct necessity. But if students had the power to vote at an earlier age, schools and students would be left with no choice but to take civic education more seriously. And with a stronger civic education, students will be more grounded in democratic values and more engaged and empowered to take action as a citizen for the rest of their lives.

16 year olds are at a crucial time in their lives, and I’d say, just the right time for voting. Voting becomes a habit, and at 16, it’s much easier for people to develop a habit than it is at 18. When people develop a habit while they’re still living at home (as opposed to when they’re older and away at college or living alone), it’s more likely to stick with them. American democracy needs engaged citizens and educated voters to keep working for all of us. Let’s start implementing lifelong habits in 16-year-olds that will improve the health of democracy; let’s lower the voting age to 16.

In a hyperpolarized political climate, Democrats and Republicans find themselves disagreeing on almost every issue. But when it comes to the question of lowering the voting age, this is an issue that Americans are united on. According to a 2019 Hill-Harris poll, 84% of registered voters oppose the idea of lowering the voting age. Lowering the voting age will be wildly unpopular and turn away the overwhelming majority of Americans

A common argument for lowering the voting age is that it will lead to increased voter turnout for both young and old. But the age group of 18-29 (the youngest age group) has incredibly low turnout: only 12.5% of 18 year olds participated in the 2014 midterms. Just because young people can vote, doesn’t mean that they actually will.

Sure, some argue that 16-year-olds have developed reasoning skills and critical thinking abilities with their “cold cognition.” But according to social scientists Tak Wing Chan, PhD, and Matthew Clayton, DPhil, teenagers aren’t mentally mature enough to vote because “research in neuroscience suggests that the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is still undergoing major reconstruction and development during the teenage years.” Why does it matter that 16- and 17-year-olds don’t have fully developed prefrontal cortexes? It matters because that’s precisely what they need to make sound and logical decisions, as they would have to do if they were given the ability to vote: Chan and Clayton say the prefrontal cortex “enables us to weigh dilemmas, balance trade-offs and, in short, make reasonable decisions in politics.” Without a fully developed prefrontal cortex, 16- and 17-year-olds cannot and should not be trusted to make decisions for the governing of the country.

And not only are 16- and 17-year-olds not cognitively mature enough to vote, they’re also not politically informed enough. 1 in 4 students can’t even name the 3 branches of government. Voting is one of the most important decisions a person can make: our country cannot have swaths of politically inexperienced and uninformed citizens voting on the policy that impacts everyone.