Teens Work, Drive and Pay Taxes. They Should Be Able To Vote, Too.

Greater civic engagement will depend on enfranchising young voters

In These Times Editors Illustrations by Terry Laban

low • er • the • vot • ing • age


1. a campaign to enfranchise younger voters for U.S. elections

Well, you didn’t vote for me.” — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- CALIF.) to a 16-year-old Sunrise Movement activist in 2019, who was asking her to support the Green New Deal.

Just how young are we talking? 

The most popular proposal is to give everyone 16 and up the right to vote. In the United States, 16-year-olds are working full-time, paying taxes and driving, so why not voting? And most live with their families, which may be a better time for them to cast their first vote — rather than when they’re in the midst of major life transitions a few years later.

In countries like Scotland and Austria, where 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in some or all elections, the teens vote at higher rates than their slightly older cohorts — and research shows voters who begin earlier stick with the habit. Civically engaged teenagers at home might even boost the participation of parents and other family members.

Enfranchising more young people could also combat what writer Astra Taylor has termed the gerontocracy”: a generational cohort making long-term policy they won’t be around to deal with. While the electorate is growing more diverse and progressive overall, the system is rigged against outcomes reflecting that reality.

Do teenagers really care about politics?

They probably should. Some of the biggest problems facing society — climate change, gun violence, student debt — weigh most heavily on the young. Meanwhile, half of Congress is over 60

What would it take to lower the voting age? 

We’ve done it before. After years of mass protests (and more than 2 million Americans drafted to Vietnam), the 26th Amendment reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, adding 11 million new voters for the 1972 election.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) revived the issue in March 2019. A month prior, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had been curtly rebuking youth climate activists, a scene that went viral. Pressley’s plan continues to face bipartisan opposition.

There is more movement at the local level. Efforts have faltered in San Francisco and Boston, but several small cities have lowered the age to 16 for local elections, where the policy has been effective and popular. Takoma Park, Md., was the first, back in 2013; under-18 voters had a turnout rate four times higher than those over 18.

What if the teens make bad decisions?

Youth are at the forefront of some of the most dynamic movements of our time. If you’re still not convinced, consider a simple counter: Are adults really doing such a great job?

This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of voting reform, see, If You Like the Idea of a 4-Day Workweek, You’ll Love the 5-Hour Workday, Community Care Over Self-Care, and The Gig Economy Needs Worker-Owned Apps.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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