IN 1971, AFTER INTENSE youth advocacy, the United States lowered the voting age to eighteen through the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. Although some people had advocated for decades to lower the voting age, success came due to the crisis of the Vietnam War: young people were being sent to die, yet had no political voice to stop it. So they rose to the occasion, demanded a voice in their future, and won.
A similar battle is now underway among today’s youth, and once again their persuasion can—and should—win the day for broader democratic participation. Massachusetts can be a leader on this front by passing a bill to give home rule authority to localities that wish to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections.
Much like young Americans in the sixties and early seventies, Gen Z is rising up to change society’s course on numerous issues, such as climate change—even though many, like their predecessors, are not yet old enough to vote.
While many young climate activists have not directly advocated to lower the voting age, their voice in the vital topic of climate change shows how they can be meaningful participants in democratic debate. And given the decisions we make will have unprecedented effects on subsequent generations, it seems wise—and democratically imperative—to give them the ballot.
The US Constitution prohibits any state from abridging the franchise to those over 18, but it does not preclude the possibility of lowering it by statute beyond that age. States can lower the voting age or allow their localities to do so for local elections.
Massachusetts has a chance to lead the way in this respect. Last month, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Election Laws held a hearing on a bill that would allow municipalities to lower the voting age for local elections. If passed, this law would represent a major victory for voting rights and generational fairness. Several Massachusetts cities have already enacted local ordinances to lower the voting age for local elections, but those laws cannot go into effect unless the Legislature approves them. The proposed Massachusetts law would give them the green light to expand democracy.
Lowering the voting age solves a major problem with the democratic status quo: Eighteen is a terrible year to enter political life, for it is a moment of profound transition.
The adjustment for those who become financially independent is profound, which can deprioritize participation. For those pursuing college, students often must navigate the byzantine systems of registering from afar and applying for an absentee ballot. And although many students who leave home may wish to register and vote in the location of their college, some states are making that increasingly hard to do. New Hampshire, for example, made residency requirements burdensome for students and now many worry it will greatly decrease voting.
Voting is a learned experience. Those who vote are more likely to do so again. Conversely, missing the first election in which one is eligible lessens the likelihood of that person becoming a habitual voter. Allowing people to experience the franchise at an earlier age—one in which there is more stability in their lives—can encourage their participation and increase the probability of their continued activation later on.
Arguments against lowering the voting age are hardly persuasive. Many worry, for instance, that parents will unduly influence voting decisions. But anyone who interacts with a teenager should know that the likelihood of them listening to a parent is rather slim.
Others lambast the intelligence of 16 and 17 year olds. Not only is this argument offensive to the millions of bright teenagers across the country, but we do not hold intelligence as a qualification for voting in any other regard, nor should we. Opponents of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 made the same arguments. So did opponents of women’s suffrage. In any event, science shows that 16 year olds are intellectually mature enough to vote.
Of course, there is always a reason to want the electorate to be informed, regardless of age. So accompanying any efforts to lower the voting age must be a robust civic education program in high schools to help young people understand the issues at stake, develop media literacy, and learn how to engage politically within the community. Massachusetts has done so by requiring every high school student to complete a real-world civics project. Laws to register newly enfranchised voters, such as automatic and same day voter registration, are likewise essential to promoting participation.
Massachusetts can be a true leader by allowing its localities to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. The consequences of our decisions on a host of matters—from climate change to economic policy—will affect them the longest. Don’t we want their voice in our democracy?
Adam Eichen is a Cambridge-based campaigns manager at EqualCitizensUS and co-author of Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want. Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law. He is the author of Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the
Future of Voting.