Vote at Age 16? It’s Not as Controversial as You Might Assume
How low is too low to allow people to vote? Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) offered an amendment to H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, on March 3 to lower the voting age to 16 for federal elections. The amendment won the support of a majority of Democrats in the House but lost by a vote of 125–302. No Republicans supported the measure. One Republican, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), voted for a similar amendment by Pressley in 2019. He voted no this time.
What is the Pressley amendment?
The amendment is a paragon of simplicity. It specifies that States cannot deny citizens the right to vote if they are age 16 by the election date. The Pressley amendment reads:
SEC. 1052. LOWERING MANDATORY MINIMUM VOTING AGE IN FEDERAL ELECTIONS.
(a) Lowering Voting Age to 16 Years of Age. — A State may not refuse to permit an individual to register to vote or vote in an election for Federal office held in the State on the grounds of the individual’s age if the individual will be at least 16 years of age on the date of the election.
(b) Effective Date. — This section shall apply with respect to elections held in 2022 or any succeeding year.
Several countries already have a lower voting age
When I first learned the amendment was being offered, I was surprised. Was I was ready to vote when I was 16 ? Would I have cast a ballot for Jim Morrison? or Jethro Tull? Would I have supported an amendment to reduce the school year to six months? Probably not, but who knows? But then I researched the proposal. Do other nations let their 16-year-olds vote?
Many countries already have a 16-year age qualification for voting. These include Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Scotland, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Several other countries have a voting age of 17, including Greece and Indonesia.
Recent political demonstrations and activism, including last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and efforts to expand voting in the south, also saw higher rates of younger people participate.
What is the Pressley amendment?
The Pressley amendment is one that has enjoyed broad support among progressives for some time. It has enjoyed widespread support among progressives. Pressley was joined in offering the amendment this year by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Grace Meng (D-NY).
Presley explained her amendment:
A sixteen-year-old in 2021 possesses a wisdom and a maturity that comes from 2021 challenges, 2021 hardships, and 2021 threats. Now is the time for us to demonstrate the courage that matches the challenges of the modern-day sixteen and seventeen-year-old.
Co-sponsor Schakowsky explained:
All over the country, and in my district especially, we see young activists working tirelessly to make their voices heard — from battling climate change and gun violence to advocating for racial justice and economic equality. Our nation’s leadership should be accountable to this younger generation who will be most impacted by these existential threats. By lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years old, we can ensure that our youth have a say on these issues that will impact them well into their future.
Arguments against age 16 voting rights
Some research suggests that younger citizens are not ready to vote. The lower voting turnout rates of 18-year-old voters are sometimes cited as reflecting a lower interest in public affairs, something that would promote ill-informed voting. As Hoover Institution research fellow David Davenport put it:
My concern is if 16-year-olds were allowed to vote on any kind of broad scale, what we’d actually be doing is bringing in the least politically informed, least politically experienced, the least mature in terms of making long-term judgments and trade-offs, directly into and potentially affecting our voter turnout and results.
Some might point to climate activist Greta Thunberg to rebut Davenport, but Thunberg turned 18 in January.
Public support for a lower voting age is growing, but skepticism persists
The 95 Democratic votes against the Pressley amendment may be a surprise to some but shouldn’t be. While public support for a lower voting age appears to be growing, relatively recent polls still suggest that many are skeptical. A Hill-HarrisX poll taken in 2019 found that 75 percent of registered voters against 17-year-olds voting and 84 percent against allowing 16-year-olds to vote.
In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was approved, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. At the time, skepticism about the change was met with the reality of 18-year-olds fighting and dying in Vietnam. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who championed the amendment, argued that increasing young people's participation in the political process was “the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation.”
How would Senator Kennedy have voted on the Pressley amendment? We have not heard the last about this issue.
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