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Friday, November 13, 2015

Should 16- and 17-Year-Olds Be Allowed to Vote?

There is a great storyline in an episode of the The West Wing where Cody, a teenaged boy, convinces White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler that children should be allowed to vote.  As Toby says, "I'd go for lowering the age in increments, and I wouldn't start at the federal level."  

Toby is right.  I have been thinking about this scene a lot during my initial research for a new project, tentatively titled "The Right to Vote Under Local Law," which will look at municipal laws around the country that grant the franchise to various constituencies.  This debate was re-ignited, including on the election law list serv, in the past day after Professor Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) published an Op-Ed suggesting that the voting age should be increased to 25.  

Below, I explain my initial thinking on this project.  Here is the punchline: local jurisdictions should enact franchise-expanding ordinances, including lowering the voting age.

Two Maryland cities, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, have recently granted the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in city elections.  Initial reports from Takoma Park suggest that it worked quite well, with turnout among young people increasing significantly.  Moreover, these voters tended to educate themselves about the issues and candidates before heading to the polls, taking away the argument that young voters are not mature or educated enough to select their leaders.  Several larger jurisdictions, such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are debating similar proposals.  The idea in D.C. is to allow 16-year-olds to vote in presidential elections.  Some cities in Massachusetts have explored lowering the voting age, but they must secure state legislative approval under Massachusetts law.  Moreover, the voting age in about half of the states is 17 for presidential primaries if the voter will be 18 by the time of the general election.  Sixteen and 17-year-olds were also allowed to vote in the recent election over Scottish independence.

There are plenty of good reasons to extend voting to 16- and 17-year olds, as recounted in this FairVote overview.  Among other arguments, it is only fair to allow 16- and 17-year olds to vote given that they can obtain a driver's license and must pay taxes on their wages.  Moreover, turnout among young people is abysmally low, and it is best to create a habit of voting as early as possible (once our society believes that individuals are able to take on these societal responsibilities).

In addition to lowering the voting age, several local jurisdictions have extended voting rights in local elections to non-citizens, and New York City is still debating the idea.  There is also the possibility of restoring voting rights for felons in local elections or adopting other reforms at the local level to improve elections.

The power of using local law to reform our democratic processes is that it can have a positive ripple effect throughout the country.  Indeed, the history of expanding the franchise has often come through local reforms.  As just one example, the women's suffrage movement had some early successes in achieving the right to vote in municipal and school board elections in places like East Cleveland and some cities in Kansas before the adoption of the 19th Amendment.  Similarly, property qualifications for voting were dismantled first at the local level.

Therefore, although a federal constitutional amendment granting the right to vote might be beneficial, and although state courts should construe their state constitutional provisions conferring voting rights more robustly, it might make sense to "go small" if we want to secure broader protection for the right to vote.  

I'll have more to say on this project as the research progresses, and I should note that my current thinking is very preliminary.  Nevertheless, I welcome comments both on the general idea and the initial thesis: localism is perhaps the best path for broader change on voting rights, given that historically, expansion of the right to vote has come through piecemeal, local rules.  Therefore, municipalities should enact local laws expanding the franchise, which will have a significant effect in the long run in both securing voting rights for more people and making our democracy stronger nationwide.

Posted by Josh Douglas on November 13, 2015 at 12:18 AM | Permalink


How about a state giving the vote to citizens facing draft registration in the next session of Congress? This would lower the voting age for males to 15 years, 10 months and a few days. This would not violate the 19th Amendment (unless draft registration itself does), as the draft, exemption from the draft, and voting before 18 are not treated as rights under present law.

Also, the state could follow New Zealand’s practice of repealing the voting age altogether for active members of the armed forces. (So the effective voting age is the minimum for enlistment.) That would lower the age for female enlisted to 17.

Additionally, women have been voting in federal elections since 1890, when Wyoming was admitted as a state. Utah, another pioneer (for obvious reasons) followed six years later, then Idaho… Unmarried women were given the vote (by accident) in New Jersey in the 1790s; married women didn’t meet the property requirement– it was in their husband’s name. This ended in 1804. Presumably they could vote for the US House. Senators and presidential electors were still chosen by the legislature.

Posted by: Ron | Dec 16, 2016 11:07:39 AM

Following up, sort of, on Eli's point: If (as I am inclined to think), we need a rule here (i.e., the voting-age) and not a standard -- and this seems true to me even if we allow that, maybe, the rule could be different in different places or for different purposes -- I'm not moved by the argument that the evidence or policy merits weigh in favor of lowering the age. It seems to me just as likely that we could say (something like) "because the best research suggests that 24 year-olds are pretty much like 18 year-olds when it comes to having what we think are the relevant capacities and knowledge, we should raise the voting age to 25."

Of course, I realize that there's a non-trivial chance that I think this because I'm getting older. =-)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 17, 2015 3:07:53 PM

It's odd to me that no one seems to have mentioned 18 being the age of legal majority as an argument for minimum the voting age. Just as 17 year olds are not legally permitted to sign contracts, etc., it seems at least arguable that they should not be considered adults for the purposes of voting. This has nothing to do with judgments regarding their epistemically capacities, but could instead be seen as a formal rule. Perhaps emancipated minors should be allowed to vote, but otherwise it seems understandable that minors be excluded from the franchise.

Posted by: Eli Poupko | Nov 16, 2015 2:27:21 PM

Only if they clean their room first.

Posted by: Mark | Nov 16, 2015 1:43:40 PM

Thanks for the comments!

Brian--in my view, democracy is strongest with as robust participation as possible. And this should include everyone who can make sound, rational choices. Of course, the real question is where we draw the line. Any line we draw is going to be fairly arbitrary. It strikes me, as a policy reason, that 18 is probably too old.

Rick (and brad)--yes, I agree that more data is needed. What little data we have--which includes the experience of not only Takoma Park but also international experience, including in Scotland recently with the independence vote, shows that 16- and 17-year-olds do not simply vote as their parents wish or vote for the popular name without considering the issues. In addition, there is some social science research, which I am just beginning to explore, which says that 16-year-olds have the cognitive capacity to make rational choices when given the time to do so, and that they have and will take this responsibility seriously. Another policy argument against setting the voting age at 18 is that it is a particularly tough time to instill a habit of voting. Eighteen-year-olds are leaving their homes for jobs or college, often moving to new areas, etc. Voting is an added responsibility on top of everything else they are doing. Perhaps 16, when they are old enough to drive in many states and be taxed on their wages, but when they are still largely immobile, is a good time to instill a habit of voting while they are not experiencing these other changes.

But my argument goes beyond these policy debates to a broader theoretical point: perhaps localism/municipal law is the best path forward in protecting the franchise. That's the key question I hope to explore in this paper.

Posted by: Josh Douglas | Nov 14, 2015 11:28:56 PM

Personally, I would oppose such a policy for both reasons. I think they are fundamentally related. Any policy that confers additional political power on a particular group of people is in some way a violation of democratic values. (Yes, for me that includes the Senate / Electoral College).

In terms of unemancipated minors, the question to my mind is: are they de facto extra votes for their parents. Without a secret ballot my inclination is that the answer is yes, given the pressure that can be brought to bear on them (legally even).* However, assuming secret ballots, it's more a question of psychology than power. And there I lean more towards no. While certainly I'd expect late teens to be influenced by their parents' politics, I wouldn't expect them to be dominated by them. A seven year old ordered to go into the voting both and vote for a particular candidate is far more likely to obey, I would think, then a seventeen year old. In fact, a seventeen year old might well vote differently purely out of rebellion in being ordered around.

As for emancipated minors, it's hard to think of any reason why they ought not to be allowed to vote.

*Given the trend towards ballot by mail and the recent decision protecting ballot selfies as a matter of free speech, I'd say we are are well on the way towards eliminating the the secret ballot.

Posted by: brad | Nov 14, 2015 4:51:42 PM

Josh, you write, with respect to the Maryland localities, "these voters tended to educate themselves about the issues and candidates before heading to the polls, taking away the argument that young voters are not mature or educated enough to select their leaders." It seems to me that we'd need a lot more data and experience before that argument could be said to have been "taken away." Although, certainly, there's probably no reason to think that 18-year-olds are categorically more able to, and inclined to, responsibly exercise (or not) their right to vote than 17-year-olds would be, the same could be said with respect to any age cut-off.

I wonder: I assume that most of those who support lowering the voting age would *not* support giving parents "extra" votes based on the number of children they have. Is this because there's a strong argument that such a policy would be unjustified as a matter of political morality, or because of a concern that such a policy would confer additional political power on particular groups of people?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 14, 2015 10:39:58 AM

Interesting post. Doesn't the answer to the question depend on the normative justification for democracy? If you think that democracy is justified because people are entitled to personal representation, then it seems that everyone ought to be entitled to vote, irrespective of age or citizenship status. But if you think that democracy is justified because it produces better governance, maybe there is more room for varieties of virtual representation? When it comes to minors, it strikes me as at least plausible to argue that they are virtually represented by their parents. Of course, we've been struggling with different versions of this question since the revolution. Plus ca change, right?

Posted by: Brian L. Frye | Nov 13, 2015 10:47:45 PM

Nice explanation. Note that localism and a push for a constitutional right to vote are not necessarily conflicting -- Takoma Park, the first city to lower the voting age to 16, did so after passing a resolution calling for such a constitutional amendment. In adopting that resolution, they also put together a task force to consider pro-suffrage policies they could consider as part of their commitment to the right to vote. Often a local push is easier when you can frame it as part of a bigger principled mission.

Posted by: Drew | Nov 13, 2015 9:39:41 AM

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