The push to promote youth participation in politics is igniting a debate about voter competency, adolescent decision-making and whether allowing younger people to vote is the best way to politically engage teenagers.
Turning 16, for many teenagers, means driving a car without supervision or starting a college search. A new campaign is hoping to add the ability to vote in local elections to the milestones of that age.
The campaign, Vote16USA, announced Wednesday, aims to lower the voting age to 16 from 18 to spur civic engagement by younger Americans. But the push, by a nonpartisan group based in New York called Generation Citizen, which seeks to promote youth participation in politics, is igniting a debate about voter competency, adolescent decision-making and whether allowing younger people to vote is the best way to politically engage teenagers.
Opponents say that teenagers are not mature enough to vote at 16, that they will not make informed decisions and that Vote16USA is a partisan push to get more liberals on voter rolls. Advocates, however, argue that lowering the voting age would increase turnout, allow teenagers to weigh in on issues that directly affect them and push schools to improve civic education.
“Given the general malaise that faces this country’s political process right now, this is a way to get young people actually excited,” said Scott Warren, executive director of Generation Citizen.
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Warren cited the midterm elections last year to make his point. Nationally, only 36 percent of eligible voters participated, a 72-year low for all federal elections, according to a report by the group. Only 19.9 percent of voters 18 to 29 cast ballots, the report said.
Jillian Wu, 17, a high-school senior in San Francisco, said that granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote while they were still living with their parents would encourage a habit that could continue once they left the nest.
Wu, who sits on Vote16USA’s 12-member youth-advisory board, is working on a campaign to lower San Francisco’s voting age for local elections. She balks at claims by opponents that teenagers would just follow parents’ political views.
“I have my own environment that I grew up in, my own experiences that lead me to make the choices that I do,” she said, explaining that her parents were not very politically active.
The last time the voting age was a major issue was in 1971, when lawmakers passed the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21, aligning it with the minimum age for military service during the Vietnam War.
In Maryland, Takoma Park lowered the voting age to 16 for municipal contests in 2013, and Hyattsville did so in 2015, after local advocates pushed for changing it.
Generation Citizen hopes to raise $1 million in 2016 to finance its efforts. The group has received $230,000, Warren said, adding that none of the money came from politicians or partisan organizations.
Some leading Democrats, most notably Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, have supported such changes, spurring partisan suspicions about the effort. In a speech this year, Pelosi said she was “all for” lowering the voting age to 16 or 17 “because when kids are in school, they’re so interested, they’re so engaged.”
Mark Tapson, editor-in-chief of Truth Revolt, a conservative website, said Pelosi was trying to “rope in young voters” who may be more inclined to vote with popular-culture idols, who tend to be liberal.
“When they see, for example, that Barack Obama slow jams with Jimmy Fallon or hangs with Jay Z and Beyoncé,” Tapson said, “many 16-year-olds feel a connection with him not because of his policies necessarily but because that makes him cool.”
Others see teenagers as less politically predictable.
“I actually could see a lot of them flocking around Donald Trump because they could identify with his immaturity,” said John Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California and former acting director of the Republican National Committee’s research department.
“Conversely, they might not be too crazy about Hillary Clinton because she might remind them of their mother. Who knows?” said Pitney.
Daniel Hart, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who has studied whether the voting age should be lowered, played down concerns about the impulsive tendencies of teenagers.
“There is a tendency to overestimate how thoughtful and how informed the decisions of other voters are,” Hart said, referring to people older than 18. “It isn’t the case that, particularly in municipal elections, a lot of voters are spending an enormous amount of time learning before making these sorts of decisions.”
Efforts to lower the voting age have drawn scattered support at the state and local levels across the country.
State Rep. Javier Martínez, a Democrat in New Mexico, plans to introduce a bill in January that would lower the voting age to 16 in school-board elections. Charles Allen, a member of the Council of the District of Columbia, introduced legislation last month that would give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local and federal elections.
To become law, the measure would require a majority of the district’s 13 council members to support it, and for Congress and the president not to overturn it.