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How 16-Year Olds Would Vote, If They Could (Washington Examiner) February 10, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Like popcorn in hot oil, the question of 16-year-olds voting has started popping up around the country. Four cities already allow it in local elections: three in Maryland and, ever on the bleeding edge of change, Berkeley, Calif. More important are the states considering it, since this would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for president. It looked like the District of Columbia might approve 16-year-old voting, but the matter has been tabled there. Legislators are considering it in states as diverse as Kentucky, Nebraska, and Michigan, and students were in the Massachusetts capital last week looking for bill sponsors. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., has put forward a constitutional amendment to change the national voting age from 18 to 16 — though, with the high approval threshold required, you can bet against that one.

The oil causing this issue to pop seems lukewarm at best — it has arisen out of last year’s student protests over gun violence on campuses. Some believe student protests prove teenagers care about politics, or at least one issue, and this has fueled a national movement. It seems like a bad idea to me, but what we have not known until recently is how these younger voters might vote if they could.

The Pew Foundation recently completed a study on the political views of younger teens — ages 13-21 — and, in short, their beliefs are a lot like their older millennial brothers and sisters and not very much like their boomer parents and Silent Generation grandparents. For example, only 30 percent of these younger Generation Zers approve of President Trump’s job performance, compared with 43 percent for boomers and 54 percent for the silents. More striking, perhaps, 70 percent of them believe the government should do more, not less, compared with 49 percent and 39 percent of boomers and silents respectively. They believe blacks are treated unfairly and that gender designations should be handled very differently. Of all age groups, they are the most pessimistic about the direction of the country.

Before you conclude that millennials and Gen Zers will combine to be an influential new voting bloc, however, consider the likelihood that they will not actually turn out to vote. In the 2016 election, for example, only about half of eligible younger voters went to the polls compared with approximately two-thirds of older voters. Proponents of 16-year-old voting argue that, unlike the young adults who move a lot and fail to register, 16- and 17-year-olds are still at home and would be more likely to vote. Teenage stability and civic duty is a tough sell, however, especially with only 23 percent of students scoring as “proficient” or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress government tests.

A further problem with teenage voting is that younger voters tend to care about a handful of issues relevant to them, rather than the full ballot of representatives, judges, and the like. As Lizzy Stephan, executive director of New Era Colorado that has worked with young people, noted: “Issues have to be front and center” for teens, specifically “issues impacting their lives whether that’s student debt reform, police brutality, wages.” That’s why the jump from students protesting guns on campus, to giving them the vote, seems like such a stretch.

Some of the arguments for 16-year-olds voting are downright silly, especially the notion that more civic engagement will improve civic education. Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Mass., said, “We signed a bill last year that provides civic education. This is just a continuation of that.” While we’re at it, let’s let more people perform surgery so they can learn to be doctors. Reminding us that no argument is too silly for an academic, professor David Runciman, head of the Department of Politics and History at Cambridge, says we should let kids vote at age six. Other arguments are very political, with Democrats far more interested in letting these more liberal Gen Zers vote than Republicans.

In the teen years, let’s keep the horse of civic education ahead of the cart of civic engagement and voting. There will be plenty of time and opportunity for that later.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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