Geoff West is a staff writer at The Fulcrum, where he covers voting and voting rights, civic education, civil discourse and disinformation. Email:email@example.com
When the mayor of Takoma Park, Md., hired a 17-year-old campaign manager and ran ads in the local high school newspaper in 2015, the highly unusual campaign moves seemed to make solid political sense. After all, nearly half of the Washington suburb's teenagers had turned out in 2013, when it became the nation's first municipality to award the franchise to people younger than 18 — and overall turnout hovered at a dismal 10 percent.
But the success of this experiment in civic engagement has not heralded a transformation in the nation's voter qualification rules. Only half a dozen other places have followed Takoma Park's lead. Proposals in several other liberal bastions have come up short — and last week the House resoundingly rejected, for the second time in three years, allowing 16-year-olds to vote in federal elections.
Many educators and progressive politicians remain undeterred. In a time of embarrassingly bad civic literacy and with turnout in most recent elections well below most developed countries, they say lowering the voting age would be a great way to breed lifelong voting habits in high schoolers while making their civic education immediately relevant outside of the classroom.
The original voting age of 21 in the United States was "somewhat of a historical accident" and an inheritance from British common law, University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas explained in a study on Scotland's 2007 decision to lower the voting age to 16. "The theory was that a man could wear a suit of heavy armor and thus was eligible for knighthood by age twenty-one, so society should also let him vote."
Douglas says his ambivalence about the merits of an earlier voting age faded as he wrote his paper. "The more I learned about the reasons behind lowering the voting age, the more I became convinced that it's a good idea, in particular as a way to both improve voter turnout and to create a generation of engaged and educated voters," he said in an interview.
So far, though, that argument is not winning over crucial groups of people. Several towns in New England have debated but ultimately abandoned proposals in the past two years, during which legislation to lower the voting ages in Hawaii, Colorado and Illinois have all died on the vine. And in November a referendum to lower San Francisco's age to 16 for participating in local elections was narrowly rebuffed, coming up 4,000 votes short out of more than 330,000 cast.
The biggest recent blow to the cause came last week, when only 125 Democrats voted to lower the voting age to 16 for congressional and presidential elections. The roll call exposed a clear divide among the party about how aggressive to get in expanding the franchise, because 93 other Democrats and all 209 Republicans voted "no."
The vote was on a proposed amendment to HR 1, the sweeping voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics reform package. But that bill, which the House then passed, would nonetheless promote voting by young people through language requiring states to automatically register citizens already in other government databases. This provision would permit 16-year-olds who earn drivers' licenses to get on the voter rolls two years ahead of time.
In 2019, when the same bill passed the first time, 126 members voted for the same amendment, by Democrat Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. That time it got the vote of one Republican, Michael Burgess of Texas.
"If what we are afraid of is they'll vote Democratic, then that's on us," he said at the time. "If we are not willing to engage and talk to people in late adolescence then we're going to lose that generation."
Last week, however, Burgess voted "no" without offering an explanation for his changed mind
Most Republicans noted how those younger than 18 are treated as juveniles in the criminal courts and that the rationale for that — they are not mature or informed enough to be treated as adults — should apply to the franchise as well.
Progressives argued that more and more young people are working, paying federal payroll taxes and getting politically engaged. But the facts don't clearly bear that out. While two-thirds of eligible Americans voted for president last fall, the highest share in more than a century, researchers at Tufts University who study civic engagement by young people said that turnout by people under 30 was at most 56 percent.
The story of voting rights in America is one of society evolving past its dogma with the help of prodding reformers who wage long, often hard-fought struggles to change common perceptions about who should count and who shouldn't.
First, it was only white men with property. Then, it was white men without property. Then, Black people and women. Native Americans came next. Half a century ago, the Vietnam War draft of men not old enough to cast a ballot got the age lowered from 21. Today, much of the energy to add a new category of voters is focused on formerly incarcerated felons.
When Congress lowered the national voting age to 18 it was, in some ways, the worst age to pick.
Eighteen is a year of change. Most are graduating high school. Some move away for college. Others join the military. Some change towns for work. Sixteen-year-olds, meanwhile, are living in stable environments, where habits can form — such as voting.
Helping young people develop a habit of voting during an impressionable, stable time is one of the primary drivers behind the lower-the-vote movement.
"We don't have any preference on who young people vote for or what motivates them to vote," said Brandon Klugman, campaign coordinator for Vote16, a project of the civics education advocacy group Generation Citizen. "We believe it's better for our democracy when folks have the opportunity to build that habit of voting starting at that age. It's a purely research-based motivation. We know voting is a habit."
One argument against teen voting is that 16-year-olds will only mimic their parents' politics. The research disagrees. Ahead of the 2014 independence referendum, for instance, 40 percent of young Scots said they intended to vote differently than their parents.
Many recent efforts at the local level have been confined to allowing teenagers to vote in elections for their own school boards. Douglas sees parallels with the women's suffrage movement, which also grew from first receiving the right to vote in school board elections before evolving to local elections and beyond.
"I think lowering the voting age is at the early stages of a similar story," he said. "When I first started talking about this five years ago or so, people said, 'You're absolutely crazy.' Now people just say, 'Well, you're kind of crazy.' "
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Business leaders have committed nearly $6 million in funding for political reform groups since last year, through the help of an organization that engages the business community on the structural threats to democracy.
The funding was committed by members of the Leadership Now Project, an organization comprised largely of business leaders that helps channel strategic investment in the political reform space.
Last year, Leadership Now began analyzing the policies and practices of nearly 200 political reform groups to provide the business community and potential donors with a sense of which organizations offered a particularly high return on investment for democracy.
Twenty groups emerged including the Center for Responsive Politics, which received $400,000 in funding from Leadership Now members to assist its tracking of money in politics, the group announced in November.
The 19 other groups, which collectively stand to benefit from $5.4 million in funding, were identified as worthy investments based on various criteria, such as whether a group's goals were politically feasible and its footing was financially healthy.
The funding was specifically targeted toward groups working on high-priority reform efforts, such as improving voter turnout and civil discourse, fighting gerrymandering, promoting ranked-choice voting and enhancing government transparency.
Beneficiaries included the Center for Political Accountability, which focuses on campaign finance transparency; voter outreach organizations such as Democracy Works and Voter Participation Center; and civil discourse groups like More in Common and Bridge USA.
The commitment from business leaders to help sustain the political reform community has been encouraging as Leadership Now looks forward to channeling more funding and interest into assisting structural reform groups, Minahil Amin, the organization's director of investment, said.
"We already want more resources for these organizations because the space is so fragmented and there's such a huge need, but as a starting point, we're pretty happy with the energy we've gathered so far," Amin said.
Leadership Now, which not only helps channel funding but educates concerned business leaders about a broad range of political issues, encourages its members to think beyond just candidates and campaigns.
Members vow to commit at least half of their political spending on efforts to address structural issues rather than simply toward the horse race, for instance.
The idea is to create a reminder "that system changes are just as important as elections," Amin said.
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A poll of more than 8,000 inmates suggests that allowing those currently or formerly incarcerated to vote will not necessarily benefit the Democrats, as many operatives in both parties believe.
Slate and the nonprofit Marshall Project, a news site covering criminal justice, unveiled the survey Wednesday, and it is sure to be cited by civil rights groups pressing to expand the voting rights of convicted felons — whose main challenges have included persuading Republicans their aim is boosting civic engagement, not gaining a partisan edge.
Some of the poll's most surprising results were about prisoners' views of the 2020 presidential candidates. Nearly half of white inmates said that if they could, they would vote to re-elect President Trump. Only 7 percent supported former Vice President Joe Biden, although most of the responses were submitted in January and February, long before he became the solid favorite for the Democratic nomination.
Trump was also the favored candidate among non-white prisoners, with 19 percent support compared to 13 percent for Biden. (Nearly 30 percent, the largest percentage, said they would not vote at all.)
While efforts to restore voting rights to released felons has gained traction in recent years, including wins in Florida, Virginia, Kentucky and New Jersey, there's far less public support for expanding those rights to the more than 2 million people currently behind bars.
Only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated felons to vote, and a poll released last year found that seven out of 10 registered voters opposed giving those imprisoned access to the ballot box.
The survey, which was "intended to be a snapshot" rather than a comprehensive study due to limitations in the methodology, also revealed policy differences among Republican and Democratic inmates compared to the typical preferences of Republican and Democratic voters.
For instance, three-fourths of Republican inmates said they supported an increase to the minimum wage and legalization of marijuana, which only roughly half of Republican voters endorse.
Democratic inmates, meanwhile, supported tighter border security at a higher rate than Democratic voters while only a slight majority supported a ban on assault weapons, a policy backed by nearly 90 percent of non-imprisoned Democrats.
While the survey results appear to counter the narrative that inmates are naturally left-leaning, the authors cautioned that white inmates and those jailed in red states responded at a disproportionately higher rate, which limits the ability to draw broad conclusions.
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