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How Lowering the Voting Age Can Boost Civic Education

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Last week, I came across a letter to the editor in a New Hampshire paper arguing in favor of lowering the voting age to sixteen. I find it intriguing how divisive this topic is.

When I posed the question to a group of educators, it sparked a pretty heated debate. Some argued that students are adults in many other ways, so there’s nothing wrong with them having the right to vote. Others felt that they were too young and irresponsible to be trusted with this right.

I’m going to ignore that whole line of thinking and offer another argument. The voting age should be lowered because it will make civics education more authentic for high school students. Instead of focusing on the potential negatives, we should be focusing on the potential positive: creating a generation of more informed, more active citizens.

The Civics Education Argument for a Lower Voting Age

Let’s start with a basic principle of education. Education is better when it is authentic.

This isn’t a controversial idea. It’s the concept that undergirds project-based learning and makes it an essential component of good civics education. For some reason, students tend to care more about things that are real than things that are hypothetical. Go figure.

With that in mind, consider the topic of voting and elections. The average high school student in the United States will turn 18 during their senior year of high school. Chances are that by the time it’s election day and they’re 18, they’ve left high school for college or the workplace. In New Jersey, we have elections every year. But in other states, it’s possible that they won’t be able to vote in a meaningful election until they’re 19 or 20.

Why is this a problem?

Voting Isn’t Real or Immediate for High School Students

Think back to the high school student who’s learning about the election and about the right to vote. To her, this is purely a hypothetical situation. She can research the candidates and participate in a mock election (which is of course far superior to doing nothing), but she can’t exercise the right to vote. All of that effort is, in a way, meaningless.

Consider instead if the age required to vote was sixteen. The majority of students would be sixteen on election day during their junior year of high school and virtually all students would be eligible to vote during their senior year. Now, if they’re taking a civics or social studies class, they’re not just learning about the idea of voting. They’re able to put it into practice.

As a result, that civics and government course would be far more authentic and relevant. A voter registration drive in a high school would be far more successful. And we would be cultivating the habit of voting in our young people instead of releasing them into the world and hoping it works out.

Experiments With a Lower Voting Age in the United States

But that’s crazy! You can’t lower the voting age to sixteen. It would be chaos, right?

Well, as it turns out, there are some experiments with voting that we can look to in the United States.

In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland voted to lower the age requirement for voting in municipal elections to sixteen. At the time, this was a radical idea and they were the first in the nation to do so. Two years later, their neighbor Hyattsville followed suit.

Screenshot of the C-SPAN StudentCam video, "Lower Vote Raise America."

Check out this short video, “Lower the Vote, Raise America.” It was a second place winner in the 2016 C-SPAN StudentCam competition. In the video, students from Maryland interview their local and state officials about changing the voting age to sixteen. Read more about using C-SPAN’s StudentCam competition in your classroom here.

Two cities is hardly a national trend. But according to Fairvote, sixteen and seventeen year olds in Takoma Park turned out to vote at a higher rate than eighteen year olds. That’s a promising bit of evidence in support of the idea that having the right to vote while you’re still a student has a positive effect on your civic engagement.

As for any negative impact on the city, I visited Maryland this year and I don’t remember it looking like an apocalyptic hellscape, so…

Seventeen Year Old Voting in Primaries

It’s also important to note that there are lesser reforms that have been implemented on a much wider scale. Many states allow seventeen year olds to vote in primary elections if they will be eighteen on the date of the general election. New Jersey is, unfortunately, not one of them.

Ohio has followed this practice since the 1980’s, and it made headlines during the last Presidential primary when the state tried and failed to change the rules. According to Ballotpedia, twenty two states allow seventeen year olds to participate in Presidential primaries if they’ll be eighteen by the time of the general election.

So the stark line defining 18 as the minimum legal voting age throughout the United States is actually a bit fuzzier than it might appear at first.

Sixteen Year Old Voting Around the World

A quick look around the world also reveals that there is willingness to experiment with lower voting ages.

A number of countries have lowered their age requirement for voting to sixteen. Austria lowered its voting age for all elections in 2007, becoming the first European country to do so. More recently, Scotland lowered the voting age for its residents in local and Scottish elections.

These are just two examples from around the world. While this doesn’t necessarily prove that doing so is the best course of action here in the United States – or that it would have the desired results – it does prove one thing. Lowering the voting age to sixteen is not disastrous or destructive. It suggests that many of the arguments against lowering the voting age are overblown and exaggerated.

Is It Time to Lower the Voting Age to Sixteen?

So what do you think? Is it time to allow sixteen year olds to vote in the United States? Should we do so in all federal elections, or should municipalities and states experiment with it first?

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