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Some 16 and 17 Year Olds Might Get Voting Rights in the 2020 Election (Washington Examiner) September 15, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Almost lost in election stories about voting by mail, possible election fraud, and drama surrounding the Electoral College is a small, but important, series of initiatives to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote. The question, in one form or another, is on the ballot in California and Colorado, as well as in some municipalities. It is all part of a nationwide effort to lower the voting age, but without a constitutional amendment as was done during the Vietnam War in 1971, allowing 18-year-olds to vote.

Who cares, one might ask? Young people, for one. In fact, the movement was started by teenagers protesting guns on high school campuses in 2018, in turn generating the political energy for lowering the voting age, giving them a say. Another group that cares are people concerned about low voter turnout, feeling that could be improved by starting voting earlier in life. Politics, of course, is always part of election reform, and Democrats, who have stronger support among the more liberal young, like letting younger teenagers vote, while Republicans do not.

To understand this movement, you have to start by understanding our constitutional election system. We do not have one nationwide election, even for president, but rather 51 state elections (including the District of Columbia) as established by Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. Then, cities and counties largely oversee their own elections for local offices. Short of a federal constitutional amendment, which is extremely difficult to enact these days, any change in voting age would be carried out at the state or local level, which is precisely what is underway.

The California ballot initiative, Proposition 18, would allow 17-year-olds to vote in the primary election if they turn 18 by the general election. Although this seems like a limited change, the Public Policy Institute of California recently estimated that in the 2016 and 2018 elections, it would have empowered 200,000 new primary voters, which could have affected the makeup of 33 general election races. Such laws already exist in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Not surprisingly, the California Democratic Party has endorsed the ballot proposition.

Interestingly, the Colorado ballot offers voters a chance to turn away from its law allowing 17-year-olds to vote in the primary. Amendment 76 would effectively strike down a law passed in 2019 allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, saying that 18 is the minimum voting age there. The 2019 law passed without any Republican support, and the question now goes to the people. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland also have ballot propositions for younger voters, and other municipalities around the country allow younger voters in local races.

It’s difficult to find a compelling reason to reduce the voting age. In fact, many laws about the drinking age or the age for driving without supervision have moved in the opposite direction in recent years, in part recognizing that the brain is still developing reasoning capabilities at those ages. Young people below 18 cannot serve on juries, serve in the military without parental permission, or qualify for their own credit card. It’s not as though there is a fairness question on the table as there was in 1971: Should young people have to go to war yet be unable to vote for national leadership?

The only objective argument for allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote is that it might increase voter turnout to start the voting habit earlier. This has yet to be proven, and consistently younger voters do not turn out in high percentages. In 2016, for example, only half of eligible younger voters actually voted, compared with two-thirds of older cohorts. A much better proposal is to allow students to preregister to vote in high school but wait until age 18 for the registration to take effect.

If 16- and 17-year-olds voting is the answer, it’s difficult to see what the question is. Without more objective evidence supporting it, it looks a lot like other so-called reforms that are really intended to help one political party over another.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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