Voter participation in the United States needs to improve. The U.S. has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout in the developed world.
Of the 35 countries comprising the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranks 28th in voter turnout. Only about 56 percent of the voting-age population in the U.S. voted in the 2016 election.
One potential way to get Americans to vote more often is to start them sooner. Lower the federal voting age from 18 to 16.
Young people have the lowest voter turnout of any age group. That means our political power is undercut. Young people do not exert as much influence over policy as we should. That is holding our country back.
If we allow 16- and 17-year-old people to vote and actively encourage them to do so, we can make voting a habit early on. Those young people will be more likely to keep voting once they start.
The U.S. would be far from the first country to take this step. Malta just became the second European country to lower its voting age to 16, following Austria. People as young as 16 can also vote in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Additionally, a legislator in Ontario, Canada, has just proposed a bill lowering the province’s voting age to 16.
Opponents of this trend will claim the cognitive function of people who are 16 are not fully developed so they cannot be expected to make good decisions.
Actually, while the type of cognitive function that makes decisions under emotional conditions does not fully develop until later, the type of cognitive function that makes calm, considered decisions like voting is fully developed by 16.
Teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for. They can be as rational as much of the adult electorate when it comes to choosing candidates.
We owe this right to them. High school is a time when Americans become directly affected by national policy.
School shootings are one example. Many young people feel that their lives are endangered by school shootings, but they cannot do much about them if they cannot vote.
Financing higher education is another case. The end of high school is when students are considering their options for higher education and worrying about how to finance it. If high schoolers cannot vote to change our country’s broken tuition and student loan system until they have already agreed to shoulder the massive responsibility of paying for their education, then that system is unlikely to be fixed.
Americans can enlist in the military at 17 with parental permission, and military recruiters are a frequent presence at high schools across the country. How can young people be told to commit to putting their lives on the line for the U.S. government before they can vote to shape that government?
Some 16- and 17-year-old Americans will probably cast their ballots for irrational reasons, but that is true of all voters. Some will probably vote the way their parents do.
But this is not a recipe for uninformed, apathetic voting. Young people who do not want to vote or do not know enough to make a decision may simply stay home on election day.
Lowering the voting age to 16 is a way to expand democracy and rectify the underrepresentation of young people’s voices in our national government.
There is a reason why so many countries have been making this change. It is time for the U.S. to follow suit.