These youth activists are fighting to lower the federal voting age — and they just might win

In the days following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February, 18-year-old student Sofie Whitney suddenly found herself thrust into a turbulent gun control debate. As she and her classmates called for tighter gun restrictions in news interviews and in meetings with lawmakers, they were often met with skepticism and criticism from adults, who told them that, as teenagers, they “can’t make a difference.”

Two national marches later, Whitney wants to prove them wrong by taking her activism one step further — by fighting to lower the voting age.

“If 16-year-old students are old enough to be affected by the laws, and realize that there is a problem, then they should have the power to help change it,” she told ThinkProgress. “Many laws affect the lives of 16-year-olds, who are almost adults. Young people should have some kind of say in how their country treats them.”  

Inspired by the activism of young people like Whitney, Washington, D.C. councilmember Charles Allen (D) reintroduced a proposal in April to lower the federal voting age to 16. Because D.C. acts as a state for election purposes, the Youth Vote Amendment Act would, for the first time, allow 16- and 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote for the president of the United States.

D.C. Councilman Charles Allen meeting with young people about a bill to lower the voting age.
(Credit: Office of Councilman Charles Allen)

“Two years ago, when I introduced the bill, people would say to me ‘how can we expect a 16- or 17-year-old to be aware of current events? How can we expect a 16- or 17-year-old to be informed and to make good choices and to understand the power of their voice?’” Allen told ThinkProgress. “And I think over the last couple of months, 16-and 17-year-olds and a lot of other young people all across this country have just completely eviscerated that argument.”

“That’s how much power these young voices have had. They’ve turned critics into supporters, they’ve turned skeptics into proponents,” he continued.

The majority of the D.C. Council, in addition to Mayor Muriel Bowser, have expressed support for the bill and, last week, a local D.C. neighborhood commission passed a resolution in support of the legislation. A public hearing is expected in June, and Allen notes that “if we have the support, if we continue to build this out the way that we are, then we would move the legislation forward later this fall.”

A nationwide movement

The campaign to lower the voting age in D.C. is not without precedent. Takoma Park, Maryland, became the first municipality in the United States to extend voting rights to 16-year-olds in local elections back in 2013, with Hyattsville, Maryland joining in 2015. In 2016, Berkeley, California overwhelmingly passed Measure Y1, which lowered the voting age for school board elections, and at least half a dozen other states have seen similar legislation introduced in the last year. A national campaign, Vote16USA, helps support efforts to lower the voting age nationally, with campaigns in Boulder, Colorado, Memphis, and Illinois.

“It’s our future that we’re voting for. We should have the right to make our own choices and determine our own destiny,” said David Adams, a 14-year-old who is part of an afterschool program in D.C. that is a member of the Vote16DC campaign coalition.

“It’s our future that we’re voting for. We should have the right to make our own choices and determine our own destiny.”

There are also similarities between today’s efforts and the fight to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 during the Vietnam War, when young activists called out the injustice of being old enough to be drafted, but not old enough to vote.

Andrew Brennan speaks to Kentucky Education Television in 2016. (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube, KET)

“Essentially, what you had was a set of policy outcomes that were disproportionately affecting young people, that young people didn’t have a say in,” said Andrew Brennen, voting rights activist and former national field director for the student-led nonprofit Student Voice. “Right now, with everything from climate change policy to minimum wage policy to education policy to gun policy, policy outcomes in America are disproportionately bad for young people. It speaks to a fundamental injustice, a question of: All these people are going to be affected by all these policies, should they be able to have a say?”

Eli Frankel, one of the student organizers for Youth Progressive Policy Group, which is working to lower the voting age in New York, said his experience with campaign organizing taught him that “what young people needed most wasn’t just a place to volunteer, and a place to get involved on the electoral side of politics, but a place to be heard on policy.”

Last month, the group overtook New York’s state capitol in Albany with 50 students for a youth lobby day, where they demanded progressive voter reform through a bill they developed with their local assembly member.

“One of the biggest problems we’re seeing in our current politics is young people just aren’t turning out in high numbers. One of the problems is finding sustainable solutions to that, because we can’t realistically knock on the door of every millennial in America,” Frankel explained. He believes introducing the voting habit in high school, when young people are typically in more stable living and community situations than during transitional college years, is necessary in reaching youth.

And it seems no one understands the need to reach high school students more than high school students themselves. During the nationwide student walkout on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, 17-year-old Melina Fike and other students at Berkeley High in California set up a voter registration booth where they registered approximately one person a minute for over an hour.

Sam Craig, a high school student and co-director of Vote For Our Lives, holds up a sign reading $3.94 during a rally at Columbine High School in April 2018. “This is what I’m worth to Colorado politicians” he said. (Credit: Theo Stroomer/Getty Images)

“A lot of what we’ve been seeing in terms of March for Our Lives and a lot of the response to recent school shootings has been that students are walking out and organizing protests, which is really powerful,” Fike told ThinkProgress. “But at the same time, I think that it just goes to show a lot of student activism is really limited. I think that giving students the right to vote not only gives more of an outlet for students to be civically engaged, but also will bring more students into the political sphere.”

Several other schools across the country also held voter registration drives during rallies and marches, including Columbine High School in Colorado, and schools in Los Angeles, Green Bay, WI, and Smithfield, RI.  

Studies show that voting is habitual, so these students are also more likely to continue voting every year after that, increasing voter turnout in the long run,” 18-year-old San Francisco resident Lorelei Vaisse, who worked on an amendment allowing youth to vote in city elections, told ThinkProgress.

“No, I think you need more maturity”

Numerous lawmakers have pushed back against such voting age initiatives, claiming that teenagers lack the “maturity” to vote.

“No, I think you need more maturity,” Republican Rep. Peter King (NY) said in March. “There’s enough people who don’t know what’s going on voting … A person who is 16 years old does not have the worldly knowledge or ability to vote on something.”

But here’s the truth: Young people have been drivers of some of the country’s most influential movements. They work, they pay taxes, and, as research demonstrates, they have the cognitive capacity to make logical decisions. And, in places where young people can vote, they do so in droves — teenagers in Takoma Park, for instance, voted at twice the rate of older voters in local elections. Eighteen-year-olds also vote more consistently than individuals ages 20 to 25, in spite of the seemingly minimal age difference.

Yet, youth have been low-priority demographics for political campaigns, both in messaging and mobilization. Collectively, young people are seen as lacking the experience to engage in political activity.

Merrit Jones delivers a speech at [email protected] (Credit: Screenshot, YouTube, TEDx Talks)

“Students are intentionally marginalized out of the realm of civic engagement,” said Merrit Jones, executive director of Student Voice. “But, what we’re seeing is a movement to take back our future. Today’s young people are choosing to take a stand for what they believe in and influence decisions, even if they are not old enough to vote.”

Beyond the statistics, young people have proven themselves to be not passive recipients of whatever the country hands them, but active participants.

Take Jaden Deal, for instance. Deal is an Iowa high school junior who represents the State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council at the State Capitol has taken steps to add students to school boards across Iowa.

“Something I hear from a lot of students is that what they think doesn’t matter, because they can’t vote. This puts a huge damper on student voice and causes students to shrink away from being civically engaged,” Deal told ThinkProgress. Lowering the voting age would “inspire students and give them the permission to do what we’ve been advocating for: share their voices.”

“When you truly listen to these voices … you realize that these are informed, educated people who have a right to be able to decide what their leaders do.”

Emmanuelle Sippy, a Kentucky high school freshman who is an active member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, is sponsoring a bill on lowering the voting age in debate class, and said support is widespread.

“As someone who is both privileged and unsheltered from the reality of systemic issues, I am obligated to act, speak, and listen in order to aid others,” she said. “Voting is a platform. Each and every vote counts. If students see and experience that, then our culture of bystanders will be much easier to combat.”

Jones echoed these sentiments, adding that the image of a youth-led movement “as partners to adult activists is essential … Youth and adults working as allies on the same team is much more productive than working against one another because of their age.”

“The floodgates will open”

As momentum surrounding lowering the voting age grows, groups like Vote for Our Lives, a Colorado-based offshoot of the March for Our Lives initiative, plans to host events encouraging students to register to vote and participate in midterm elections. March for Our Lives activist and Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg set a goal to encourage every high school in America to hold a voter registration drive before the end of the month. And student activists, like the ones who spoke to ThinkProgress, continue to champion local election voting rights in their own communities, alongside issues like gun violence and equitable education.

Allen’s bill to lower the voting age in D.C. could become the game-changer in the fight to lower the voting age.

“When the District of Columbia lowers its voting age to 16, it will be a turning point to show the nation that enfranchising youth is both possible and desirable,” said Alex Koroknay-Palicz, of the National Youth Rights Association, which has been working on the issue for nearly 20 years. “Once a major city like D.C. lowers it, the floodgates will open … I expect many cities will follow suit and I expect to see a federal bill within the next year.”

D.C. Councilman Charles Allen with a group of young people on the day he introduced the bill to lower the voting age.
(Credit: Office of Councilman Charles Allen)

And “the prospects are good” for the legislation’s advancement, according to Allen. He currently chairs the committee that has jurisdiction of the bill, which was not the case two years ago when he was unable to even schedule a hearing on the bill.

“When you truly listen to these voices, I think you realize that these are informed, educated people who have a right to be able to decide what their leaders do, who their leaders will be, and help hold them accountable when they do something wrong,” Allen added. “The more I have conversations with people who began as naysayers, the more that they turn their question from saying ‘why do this?’ to ‘why not?’”

Author: Elham Khatami


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