On Tuesday, Ben Miller plans to step into a booth at the Takoma Park Community Center and do something that the country’s other 16-year-olds can’t: cast a vote in an election.
Heady stuff for a slim, freckled teen who works part time at a gelato shop in between attending high school and playing with his band, Ladle Fight. He and about 350 other 16- and 17-year-olds were granted the right to vote in municipal elections by the Takoma City Council in May, making the town the nation’s first to lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
“It’s a valuable privilege,” Miller said as he sat on the floor with friends in a crowded school hallway at Montgomery Blair High School, munching on his lunch of crackers, a fruit bar and a sandwich.
Even so, there’s hardly been a rush to the ballot box. Takoma Park City Clerk Jessie Carpenter estimates that about 90 16- and 17-year-olds have registered to vote. And the election is a snore: The mayor faces no opposition and just one of six seats on the City Council was contested — until Friday, when one of the candidates dropped out.
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Miller, a junior whose mother is a writer and whose father does international relief and development work, registered to vote a few weeks ago. He and a friend were wandering around an outdoor festival when they heard a voice say: “You guys look like you might be underage.”
A woman sitting at a table with a clipboard urged Miller to register to vote. Maryland allows 16- and 17 -year-olds to preregister to vote through the Motor Vehicle Administration. But Miller doesn’t have his driver’s license yet, so the red-haired teen put his name down.
Miller said he has no burning issues motivating him, not even the legalization of marijuana, a popular topic with some of his peers. He plans to vote for incumbent Mayor Bruce Williams.
His new civic duty inspired him to accompany his mother to a recent candidate forum at the community center. Asked if he would have gone otherwise, Miller shook his head and said, “No way!”
His engagement is exactly what Takoma Park officials were after when they lowered the voting age.
“The question was, ‘How do we get more people to vote?’ ” said council member Tim Male, who introduced the proposal, one of several reforms to city election rules this year designed to boost turnout.
Other changes included same-day registration, allowing paroled felons to vote and giving candidates easier access to apartment buildings to campaign. Residents living in the country illegally have been allowed to vote in city elections since 1993 — a gesture that barely raises an eyebrow in what’s often dubbed the People’s Republic of Takoma Park.
Male got the idea for lowering the age from Rob Richie, director of the national reform organization FairVote and a Takoma Park resident. Richie had seen reports from Denmark that suggested younger teenagers are more likely to cast a ballot than their slightly older peers.
Ever since the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote more than 40 years ago, younger voters have been something of a bust. They typically go to the polls in much smaller numbers than their elders.
Turnout is especially dismal for local elections, even in the highly political environs of Takoma Park, which has a voter-registration rate that tops 70 percent.
During the last municipal elections in 2011, a meager 19 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, Carpenter said.
Eighteen-year-olds, it turns out, “are not a very good first-voting age group,” Richie said, because many of them are in the midst of leaving their childhood homes.
“As you get more disrupted in your life, the less likely you are to vote,” he said. “Voting is this communitarian act; it is about a connection to a broader community.”
Offering that connection to younger teens could get them into the habit of voting for the rest of their lives. Or at least that’s what Takoma Park officials hope.
Expanding the franchise to 16-year-olds also is not a stretch in Maryland, Richie said, since 16- and 17-year-olds can already preregister to vote.
Not everyone on the council supported the change. The lone ‘no’ vote, Fred Schultz, said the result won’t be worth the time and effort the city devoted to the issue. Nor will it do much to achieve the larger goal of getting younger voters engaged in politics, he said.
“The whole idea is rather lame,” Schultz said, but his colleagues seemed caught up in the idea that “it’s going to be so exciting to say we are the first municipality in the country to do this.”
“People in Takoma Park think they are special,” he said.
In letters and testimony, some opponents said that young people barely old enough to drive a car don’t have enough perspective to vote.
One critic said that teens should not be allowed to “dilute” the value of the ballots cast by “older, more experienced voters.”
Others predicted that the 16- and 17-year-olds most likely to vote are from politically active homes and are thus likely to amplify the power of an already well-represented group.