Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories

Strong arguments aside, movement to allow teens to vote appears to stall

Lower the voting age

California teens have been fighting to lower the voting for years.

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."

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

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.' "

Read More

People standing near 4 American flags

American flags fly near Washington Monument.

Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A personal note to America in troubled times

Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute. This is the latest entry in his series based on the "Enough. Time to Build.” campaign, which calls on community leaders and active citizens to step forward and build together.

I wanted to address Americans after the attempted assassination of former President Donald Trump. Consider this a personal note directly to you (yes, you, the reader!). And know that I have intentionally held off in expressing my thoughts to allow things to settle a bit. There’s already too much noise enveloping our politics and lives.

Like most Americans, I am praying for the former president, his family and all those affected by last weekend’s events. There is no room for political violence in our nation.

Keep ReadingShow less
How Chief Justices Roberts, Marshall responded to presidential bullies

How Chief Justices Roberts, Marshall responded to presidential bullies

Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.”

This is the latest in “A Republic, if we can keep it,” a series to assist American citizens on the bumpy road ahead this election year. By highlighting components, principles and stories of the Constitution, Breslin hopes to remind us that the American political experiment remains, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, the “most interesting in the world.”

Chief Justices John Roberts and John Marshall share more in common than their ordinary forename and stressful day job. They both fiercely defended the reputation of America’s courts; they both presided over thenastiest politicaltrials of their times; and they both couldn’t quite contain their disdain for some of the presidential antics that occurred under their watch.

Keep ReadingShow less
Trump and Biden at the debate

Donald Trump and Joe Biden engage in the first debate of the 2024 election.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

American presidents only debate during presidential debates

Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework," has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.

About 25 years ago, the noted political scientist and sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset invited me to lunch at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. I was a young academic teaching various courses in ethics and political philosophy at George Washington University. He asked me: "What do you think is the most important quality a person needs to be president?"

I thought for about 30 seconds and replied, "Give a great speech."

He said, "No, schmooze."

Keep ReadingShow less
Brain examination
Science Photo Library/Getty Images

A simple solution for Biden, for Trump, for America

Butler is a husband, father, grandfather, business executive, entrepreneur and political observer.

I have said it before, and I will say it again:We deserve better.

It is bad enough that our only real choices for president come November will be old, white, polarizing men tainted by scandal. After nearly four years in what is arguably the most demanding and stressful job in the universe, Joe Biden, whose cognitive capabilities were subject to question even in the last campaign, now appears even to ardent supporters to be too old for the job. Whether they question his ability to do the job or his ability to win the election is unclear.

And while it may be less obvious, Trump provides his own evidence that he is not the man he used to be, neurologically.

Keep ReadingShow less
Isaac Cramer
Issue One

Meet the Faces of Democracy: Isaac Cramer

Minkin is a research associate at Issue One. Van Voorhis is a research intern at Issue One.

More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.

South Carolinian Isaac Cramer developed a passion for politics and elections at a young age, witnessing his mother cast her first vote after achieving her long-standing dream of American citizenship. He joined the Charleston County Board of Voter Registration and Elections in 2014 and began serving as its executive director in March 2021. He oversees election administration for more than 300,000 registered voters in South Carolina’s third most populous county. Charleston spans along the state’s southern coast and shares a name with the largest city in the state, where Cramer resides.

Cramer, who is not affiliated with any political party, has received prestigious honors for his extensive efforts to reform election administration and ensure elections are fair and secure. He earned a Clearinghouse Award from the Election Assistance Commission in 2022 and the J. Mitchell Graham Memorial Award from the South Carolina Association of Counties in 2023. He is also a two-time recipient of the state’s Carolina’s Excellence in Elections award. Earlier this summer, he was appointed president of the South Carolina Association of Registration and Election Officials.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

Keep ReadingShow less