Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, wants to lower the voting age in local elections (as opposed to state or federal ones) to 16.
So, is this crazy or what?
Well, crazy depends on your point of view.
Some thought it was crazy to lower the overall voting age from 21 to 18.
Some thought it was crazy to let women vote.
Some thought it was crazy to let anyone vote.
So let’s take a look at this. Perhaps the first thing to know is that some places in the United States already have lowered the voting age in local elections to 16. Not many, but some.
In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland – in the D.C. suburbs – became the first city in the country to do this, following a local campaign to push the idea. Since then five other Maryland cities have done the same thing: Glenarden, Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, Riverdale Park. Glenarden later changed its mind and raised the voting age back to 18, so that brings the total count of cities in Maryland where 16-year-olds can vote in local elections to five. (All this information comes from the National Youth Rights Association, which is among the groups pushing for the change.)
The Maryland localities that lowered the voting age did so as a result of action by their city council (they can do that there). In 2016, voters in Berkeley, California, approved a measure to lower the voting age in school board elections to 16. In 2020, voters in Oakland, California, did the same thing.
Here’s where things get interesting. The results of those referenda lowering the voting age never got implemented. The Washington Post recently reported on Alameda County’s failure to carry through on these actions by Berkeley and Oakland by noting this irony: “In a cycle when many feared vote tampering, interference and intimidation from right-wing activists, it was a textbook case of voter suppression: Teens who had worked hard to win the franchise were denied the right to vote, a failure that also thwarted the will of 67 percent of voters in Oakland and 70 percent in Berkeley. The 2022 election did see widespread disenfranchisement — in the deep-blue Bay Area.”
The website EdSource reports that officials in Alameda County couldn’t figure out how to to make all this work: “The measures have stalled at the registrar’s office, where staff have hired a consultant and an attorney to work out the complexities of issuing ballots, in multiple languages, to a select group of voters for only one race, school board.” In other words, if you were 18 or older and showed up to vote, you’d get a ballot with all the races, but if you were 16 or 17, you’d need to get a ballot with just the school board races because that’s all you could vote in. That doesn’t seem that hard to me, but apparently it is. EdSource also points out that California law doesn’t set a deadline for implementing ballot initiatives – so six years after Berkeley voted to lower the voting age and two years after Oakland voted to do so, it still hasn’t happened.
In Culver City, California, part of the greater Los Angeles area, voters this fall also were asked about lowering the voting age in local elections (not just school board elections) to 16. It failed by just 16 votes.
Meanwhile, the Boston City Council recently voted 9-4 to ask the Massachusetts legislature for permission to lower its voting age in local elections to 16. We’ll see what Massachusetts lawmakers do. And now in Virginia, Rasoul has his proposed constitutional amendment. This isn’t the first time he’s brought it up. He introduced it in 2021 and the measure died in committee. That was back when Democrats controlled the House; I doubt the measure will fare any better in a Republican-controlled House.
You’ll notice that all the places that have lowered their voting ages – or, in the case of those California cities and Boston, have taken some action to lower their voting age – are Democratic-voting places. That’s of a piece with other voting-rights issues, with Democrats pushing for broader access and Republicans more skeptical.
By now, you might be wondering what the rationale for all this is. Rasoul cites two: First, 16- and 17-year-olds “are able to work and contribute to our society but are not able to vote on decisions that impact their doing so.” Second, he says, “young people are disproportionately impacted by major political issues such as the climate crisis, regional planning, gun violence, and the education system.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out another reason: Lowering the voting age would probably benefit Democrats. NBC exit polls in the 2020 presidential election showed that voters 18 to 24 voted 65% for Joe Biden; the next most pro-Biden age cohorts (24-29 and and 40-49) were in the 54% range. The assumption is that 16- and 17-year-old voters would likely vote the same way. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that age cohort will be Democratic everywhere. Those same exit polls showed that among white voters in the 18-29 cohort, 53% voted Republican. For what it’s worth, the Brookings Institution has different figures that show young white voters narrowly voted Democratic in 2020. Hmm. If you believe NBC, then in predominantly white, and predominantly Republican, communities such as Southwest Virginia, adding voters who are 16 and 17 would likely add more Republican voters to the rolls. If you believe Brookings, maybe so, maybe not — it would depend on the geographic distribution of those voters. If you’re a Democrat, you’re likely to be willing to take a chance. If you’re a Republican, you’re probably more skeptical, to put it mildly.
The same trend persisted in November’s mid-terms: Young voters broke heavily for Democrats, by an even wider margin than in the presidential election, according to the Brookings Institution. Specifically, Brookings found young voters went Democratic by a margin of 28% — landslide territory. Brookings also found white voters 18-29 also voted Democratic by wide margins, too — up from 3% in 2020 to 18% in 2022, Brookings says. Given how racially polarized some voting trends are, that’s not an insignificant departure. By some accounts, young voters made the difference in the Gerogia Senate run-off that gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate — 69% of voters 18 to 24 voted for Democrat Raphael Warnock and 57% of those 25 to 29 did, according to Statistica. Warnock’s final margin overall was just 1.9%. Bottom line: In the November mid-terms, adding even younger voters might have added even more Democratic votes and could well have resulted in Democrats retaining control of the U.S. House. A reminder: Rasoul’s proposal wouldn’t effect state or national elections, just local elections, but the point remains the same: Adding more younger voters would probably help Democrats.
The national groups that are promoting lowering the voting age cite a more non-partisan reason for lowering the voting age: If people start voting at a younger age, voting will become more of a habit so over the long term this will help boost civic participation. “At 16, that’s the ideal age to develop the habit for democratic participation,” Andrew Wilkes, the chief policy and advocacy officer of Generation Citizen, told The Washington Post.
This argument naturally raises the question of whether, if granted the right to vote, 16- and 17- year-olds would actually do so. The website Governing reports that when Takoma Park lowered its voting age, 44% of the under-18 voters who registered really did turn out to vote. Skeptics might wonder about the 56% who took the time to register but didn’t bother to carry through with a vote, but a 44% turnout in a local election is still quite high. For comparison purposes, in Virginia’s hotly contested 2019 General Assembly races, 42.4% of registered voters statewide cast a ballot – so the Takoma Park teens of 2018 showed somewhat more enthusiasm about voting for the city council than adults in Virginia did about voting for the state legislature. Whether that enthusiasm continued beyond the initial novelty and extended to other communities is harder to say – I haven’t seen any studies on the subject. We do know that nationally, turnout generally tracks with age. The older someone is, the more likely they are to vote; the younger they are, the less likely. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in the 2020 presidential election, the age cohort most likely to vote was those 65 to 70; turnout there was 76%. The age cohort least likely to vote was those 18 to 24; among that age group, only 51.4% of those registered actually voted. Rasoul points out that the 2022 midterms saw the second-highest turnout in history for those 18 to 29. It also was about 27%.
In some circumstances, Virginia already allows 17-year-olds to vote: Anyone who’s 17 can vote in a presidential or congressional primary if they’ll turn 18 before the general election. Virginia is one of 16 states that allow this. If you’re curious, half of these are so-called red states, half blue states.
While the idea of 16-year-olds voting may seem unusual in the United States, it’s not in some other countries. The National Youth Rights Association identifies six places around the world that allow 17-year-olds to vote (one of those is North Korea, so not sure that’s the best example) and 22 more that also allow 16-year-olds to vote. Sometimes those rights are limited. For instance, Bosnia and Croatia allow 16-year-olds to vote if they’re employed. The Dominican Republic, Hungary and Indonesia allow 16-year-olds to vote if they’re married. On the other hand, that list includes some major countries, such as Brazil (which allows 16-year-olds to vote in all elections) and Israel (which allows 16-year-olds to vote in local elections). In Germany, seven of 16 states have lowered the voting age to 16 for local elections.
The history of voting changes in the United States is that there’s usually a long time between the idea and the reality. The women’s suffrage movement marked its beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848; the 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920 – 72 years later.
The campaign to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 began in 1941, first proposed in Congress by Sen. Harley Kilgore, D-West Virginia. The real push didn’t begin until the 1960s, and then approval happened pretty quickly, culminating with the 26th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971. That was 30 years since Kilgore’s first proposal, and eight years since a presidential commission recommended the change.
By that history, it may take years yet to lower the voting age to 16. We know this much: The teens who initially pushed to lower the voting age in California are already out of their teens.