Politicians in Oregon and California Want To Give 16- and 17-Year-Olds the Right To Vote
We trust young people to make a lot of weighty decisions. Voting should be one of them.
An increasing number of state and local politicians have introduced legislation to extend the franchise to those younger than 18.
On Tuesday, Oregon State Sen. Shemia Fagan (D–Portland) introduced a bill that would amend the Oregon Constitution to allow those 16 and older to vote in local, state, and even federal elections.
"It's time to lower the voting age in Oregon and give young people a chance to participate at the ballot about decisions that affect their homes, their clean air and clean water future, their schools, and as we've seen, their very lives," said Fagan at a press conference announcing her bill.
A few weeks earlier, California Assemblyman Evan Low (D–San Jose) introduced a bill that would lower the Golden State's voting age for all elections to 17 years of age.
So far, 16-year-olds have only been given the right to vote in local elections in a few Maryland communities bordering Washington, D.C. Berkeley, California also allows 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections. There are a number of states that allow 17-year-olds to vote in party primaries provided they will be 18 by the general election.
Outside of these limited examples, under-18s remain disenfranchised. So far, efforts at changing that have come to naught.
Last year, lawmakers in Virginia, Minnesota, and New York introduced bills that would have lowered the voting age to 16, as did one member of the District of Columbia City Council. No bill made it out of committee.
The Statesman-Journal reports that proposals to lower the voting age have surfaced in 13 states since 2003, and all of them have failed.
Critics of the idea argue that 16-year-olds aren't mature enough to vote, and proposals to allow them to do so are cynical partisan ploys.
"16-year-olds are too young to enlist in the military, too young to own firearms, too young to own property, too young to enter into legal contracts, and too young to get married. But they are old enough to vote?" said Oregon Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. (R–Grants Pass) in a statement to CNN. "This is nothing more than an attempt to expand the voter rolls to sway elections."
Baertschiger isn't wrong. Under-18s are routinely denied freedoms that 18-year-olds are given as a matter of course.
That includes not just military service and the ability to make contracts, but also more mundane liberties like being able to buy cigarettes or beer.
Many of the legislators who support lowering the voting age have been either silent about expanding other freedoms for teenagers, or in some cases, actively working to take more of those freedoms away from people.
Take D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, who has supported both lowering the voting age to 16 and raising the District's smoking age to 21. It's a similar story in Oregon, where a number of co-sponsors on Fagan's voting age bill also supported a successful attempt to raise the Beaver State's smoking age to 21.
Often, the argument for letting 16- and 17-year-olds vote is not so much that they deserve a say in government, but rather that they are on the right side of the issues.
"They know that we have to take action urgently on issues like education funding, health care, climate justice and gun violence in particular. I'm also hearing a lot from 16- and 17-year-olds about the need for criminal justice reform and the need to stop mass incarceration," said one Oregon supporter of lowering the voting age.
Fagan said her bill was inspired by the pro-gun control activism of the Parkland students. Commentators like Stephen Colbert and Laurence Tribe have made similar, albeit off-the-cuff arguments for why we should lower the voting age.
That the loudest proponents of lowering the voting age are doing so for inconsistent or even cynical reasons doesn't necessarily mean they are wrong.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are already allowed to make any number of weighty decisions for themselves, from where they want to work to (depending on the state) who they want to sleep with. Giving them the option of expressing a preference for a candidate or ballot measure doesn't sound like too much of a leap.
And while we might be afraid that a lot of high school students will have uninformed or ill-advised opinions, the exact same thing can be said for legions of adult voters. Indeed, libertarian critics of democracy like to argue that most or even all voters are hopelessly (if rationally) ignorant of the policy issues they're asked to decide. Teenagers are not necessarily dumber about the issues that affect them.