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Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

Five silhouettes of people standing in a row and raising their hands. Studio shot on the white background.
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

This November, San Francisco could become the first major city in the U.S. to lower the voting age for municipal elections to 16.

The question is on the ballot there for the second time. Four years ago, the measure fell short with 48% approval, but this time its backers are optimistic that it will pass.

If it does, could this be a sign of things to come for the nation? The mostly Generation Z (people born between 1996 and 2010) supporters of giving the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds think it may be.

The Argument for Lowering the Voting Age

Supporters of the measure point to several nations and a handful of smaller American cities that have dropped the voting age to 16. One of them, Takoma Park, Maryland, has allowed 16-year-olds to vote in municipal elections since 2013 and has found that young voters turn out to vote at higher rates than older voters.

Gen Z supporters of lowering the voting age also argue that they are already viewed as adults within the criminal-justice system, that the minimum age for sexual consent is 16 in most states, and that many Gen Zers work and pay taxes. Furthermore, they contend that they are more socially and politically engaged than previous generations at that age.

The Argument Against Lowering the Voting Age

Of course, not everyone agrees that this is a good idea.

Some opponents say people at age 16 and 17 aren't equipped to make rational decisions. U.S. Rep. Mark E. Green (R-Tennessee), for instance, said, “We don't allow a 16-year-old to buy a beer, and the decision-making is because of their ability to reason at that age."

Others say that, despite Gen Zers' claims to the contrary, 16- and 17-year-olds are not fully informed and educated. They also dispute Gen Zers' assertions that they have enough “skin in the game" to deserve a vote. And then there are Republicans who believe that the move to lower the voting age is just a scheme for Democrats to gain more power because 16- and 17-year-olds tend to be more liberal than older people.

The Road Ahead

As it stands, the forces pushing for a lower voting age face a tough task. Even the majority of Democrats oppose lowering the voting age.

Still, it's an idea that does seem to be gaining some momentum. Seventeen states now allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the general election, and more than half of them took that step within the last decade.

And although they've been unsuccessful, legislative efforts to drop the voting age to 16 have emerged recently at the national level as well. In 2018, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York) introduced a bill to do that, and last year U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) introduced a bill that gained the support of more than 100 House Democrats.

The movement to drop the voting age to 16 nationwide does face formidable obstacles, however. The biggest one is that it would need a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate just to get the ball rolling.

After the proposed amendment is published in the Federal Register, it would be sent to each state governor. The governor would then either submit it to the legislature or to a state convention, depending on what Congress has specified. Then, three fourths of the states, 38 of them, must ratify it before it becomes part of the Constitution.

This was the procedure the last time the U.S. lowered the voting age – from 21 to 18 – in 1971. At the time, proponents of age-18 voting argued that if an 18-year-old could be drafted into the military and serve in Vietnam, he should be able to vote. Congress overwhelmingly voted its support of the 26th Amendment, and on July 1 of that year, North Carolina became the 38th state to ratify it.

Patience Is a Virtue

Gen Zers today argue that they, like the Baby Boomers of 50 years ago, deserve the vote. They say they are realistic about the challenge facing them and that is why they're starting small. Their first goal is to achieve lowered voting ages for municipal elections, and in many states that means getting legislatures to pass laws that will allow cities to do that.

They hope to gain momentum over time for a constitutional amendment to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote.

Impossible? At one time, not that many decades ago, lowering the voting age to 18 also seemed impossible.

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