In early January, Hyattsville, Maryland, took a major step to becoming the second city in America to extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-old residents in local elections. In so doing, Hyattsville joined another Maryland city, Takoma Park, which allowed young people to vote in its 2013 municipal contests. Other initiatives to lower the voting age in cities as diverse as Lowell, MA, and San Francisco, CA, are ongoing.
CIRCLE strongly endorses these efforts—many of them led by students—to directly engage young people in civic and democratic life. In the report by our Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, we identified lowering the voting age to 17 in municipal or state elections as a promising strategy to significantly move the needle on seemingly intractable youth voting rates.
That recommendation is based on relevant research findings that we have outlined in letters of support to officials in Hyattsville and elsewhere:
- Young people are knowledgeable enough to vote. A study found that 16-year-olds’ political knowledge is about the same as 21-year-olds’. Our director, Peter Levine, recently argued in Politico that youth are sophisticated enough to understand political messages.
- Voting is habitual, and norms related to political engagement in high school have a lasting impact. Young people continue to have a higher turnout rate, even into their mid-30s, if they went to schools where a majority of students believe they should vote.
- Analysis of our own national youth survey conducted after the 2012 election found that learning about voting in high school predicts actual voting once people reach age 18. The ability to cast a ballot while in school would, in turn, strengthen and underline the immediate relevance to civic education.
It will be important for researchers to carefully follow and study the political participation of these youngest voters in places like Hyattsville, but the very earliest indications are positive. In Takoma Park, for example, 16.9 percent of eligible voters under 18 cast a ballot—nearly double the 8.5 percent turnout rate of eligible voters 18 and up.
Practitioners and advocates should look for ways to support youth-led efforts to lower the voting age, particularly in jurisdictions where such a change requires legislation or more complex approval processes than a city council vote.
For more research-based rationale for the importance of youth voting, check out our Quick Facts on Youth Voting.