Every four years, those of us who are no longer young wring our hands at how infrequently those who are still young bother to vote. And every four years, those who are still young vote about as often as we did when we were young – sometimes a little less, but often a bit more. In 2008, for instance, more young people voted than in any election since 1972.
The data is clear, and year-by-year variations notwithstanding, the trend is straightforward: It’s about age, not generation. People in their 20s vote less than people in their 30s do, and always have. People in their 30s vote less than people in their 40s, and so on up to retirement age. So those trying to pin America’s problems with voter turnout on millennials: Sorry, but you’re wrong. You and your peers were at least as bad as they are – probably worse.
The primary reason for this is simple, and it has nothing to do with virtue: Voting is a habit. As with all habits, good and bad, the more you do it, the more you do it. And it’s not like we make it easy for young people to vote. The years around when we turn 18 are generally some of our most disruptive and discombobulated. We might go to college, move out of our parents’ homes, get jobs, begin the process of learning to navigate all of the many bureaucracies of adulthood. And in the middle of all this, we’re expected to figure out where our polling place is and make sure we’re registered, often months in advance. It’s a recipe for failure – particularly once you add in new-voter suppression efforts like ID requirements and registration barriers – and it’s a testament to the idealism and initiative of youth that so many do get to the polls.
But even setting aside all those barriers, a simple fact remains: The best predictor of whether you’ll vote in the next election is whether you voted in the last one. Young people don’t vote as much as old people because really young people are barred by law from voting.
So what if we changed that? What if instead of handing citizens the franchise in the middle of the most hectic time in their young lives, we did so a bit earlier, when things were a lot calmer? What if the first time you voted, it was at the polling place your parents had been going to for years? What if the first local candidates you saw on the ballot were ones you’d grown up around? In much of the United States you can marry, work and drive a car at 16. Why not vote?
This isn’t a fantasy. Brazil and Argentina have already lowered the voting age to 16, as have Scotland, Austria and Ecuador. Nicaragua was the first to do so, way back in 1984. Britain is likely to follow soon; two of the country’s three major parties already support the change. Reducing the voting age to 16 in local elections is even on the ballot in San Francisco this year.
But what if we went further?
My 13-year-old daughter babysits regularly. She bakes cupcakes to sell in school, and on commission for neighbors’ parties. She’s already learning how to drive. And at least as relevant, she watches Rachel Maddow every time I let her. Why shouldn’t she be voting?
Most of the arguments I hear against lowering the voting age to (let’s say) 12 don’t carry much weight with me. Yes, some kids would cast their votes in ways or for reasons I wouldn’t like, but plenty of adults do that now. Voting is a right, not a privilege you’re extended on the condition that you use it “responsibly.” Yes, some kids would surely choose not to vote, but many of their parents don’t either. And while it’s true that teenagers aren’t finished with their intellectual development, 18-year-olds aren’t either. We don’t impose developmental tests on adult voters – and shouldn’t! – so why deny the franchise to teenagers on developmental grounds?
The one really compelling argument I’ve heard against youth enfranchisement concerns the possibility that some kids’ votes might not be freely cast – that their parents might force or coerce them to vote the way they, the parents, chose. This is a real worry, particularly in vote-by-mail states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado, where the security of the polling place is not ensured. But what better way to teach kids about their right to personal autonomy than to tackle that problem head-on? How better to let kids know that there are limits to their parents’ legitimate control over their lives than to entrust them with a core right of citizenship, and to take real steps to protect their ability to exercise it fully?
American democracy is in rough shape right now. The country is polarized. Many of us are disheartened, even scared. Whoever wins the presidential election, we’re going to have to get to work reforming, even remaking, our political institutions. How better to commit ourselves to that project than to welcome those who have the most to gain and lose from what we decide – the generation of Americans who will rise to adulthood in the coming decade – into the process as our true partners?