Nathaniel Welch/Redux for Scholastic Inc

Civics in Action
August 2020

Should Teens Be Allowed to Vote?

 

 

By Anna Starecheski and Laura Anastasia

One California city may let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections.

One California city may lower its voting age to 16. Should other cities follow suit?

Teens can do a lot to change the world. They can start food drives. They can pick up litter. They can donate money to causes they believe in.

There is one thing younger teens can’t do to change the world. They can’t vote. People must be at least 18 years old to vote in most elections in the United States.

But that might change soon in San Francisco, California. In November, city residents will vote on whether to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections.

A handful of smaller cities already let young teens vote in local elections. But San Francisco would be the first big U.S. city to do it.

Should 16- and 17-year-olds be allowed to vote? Here are both sides.

In many states, 16-year-olds can drive and get a job. They must pay taxes on their earnings. But what’s one thing most of them are not allowed to do?  Vote. That’s because the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets the voting age at 18. (Prior to ratification of the Amendment in 1971, most Americans had to be at least 21 to vote.)

Some teens think the current voting age is unfair—and they’re pushing for change. Their efforts have succeeded in a handful of U.S. cities. For example, Berkeley, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland, both let 16-year-olds vote in local elections.

Now, voters in San Francisco, California, are considering lowering the voting age too. In November, residents will vote on whether to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to cast ballots in local elections. If the measure passes, San Francisco will become the first major U.S. city to lower its voting age to 16.

Yes!

Teens Deserve a Voice

Government decisions affect teens’ lives. So more teens deserve a voice in how their city is run, some people say. In addition, voting is a habit, others argue. People who start voting at 16 might be more likely to vote as adults.

Teens are interested and engaged in politics right now—and they deserve a say at the polls, supporters of lowering the voting age say. Countless young people nationwide are joining protests, contacting lawmakers, and sharing their views on social media.

But those same teens cannot vote to elect leaders who could act on the issues they care about, says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, when it comes to electing lawmakers . . . these teens lack any real power,” Steinberg says. “This needs to change.”

Younger teens are also more likely to exercise the right to vote than older voters, supporters say. In Argentina and other countries that let people vote at 16, voter turnout is significantly higher among 16- and 17-year-olds than among 18-to 21-year-olds. And a study out of Denmark found that young people are more likely to vote if they do so for the first time while still living with their parents.

No!

Too Young to Cast Ballots

Voting is an important responsibility. But younger teens might not take it seriously, some people say. Others argue that many teens do not know enough about the government. They may not understand what they are voting on until they get older.


What do you think? Should 16- and 17-year-olds be allowed to vote? Why or why not?

Just because teens participate in protests does not mean they are ready to cast ballots, critics of lowering the voting age say. “Demonstrating is not the same as voting, which requires a high level of civic responsibility and knowledge,” says David Davenport, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California.

Most teens don’t have a basic understanding of how the government works, critics say. In fact, less than half of American eighth-graders are proficient in civics, according to the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics assessment.

In addition, research has found that young people’s brains fully develop at a later age than scientists had once thought. That has led many states to increase the age at which teens can do certain activities. For example, most states have raised to 18 the age at which teens can drive a car without any restrictions. If teens’ brains aren’t developed enough for them to handle those other responsibilities, they aren’t ready for voting either, critics say.


What do you think? Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? Why or why not?

Voting Through the Years

Voting Through the Years

Will young teens get the right to vote? They might! The rules about who can vote have changed over time. Here is how. 

1788-1789
The first election for president takes place. In most states, only white men who own land or a business can vote.

1870
The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is approved. It gives all men the right to vote, regardless of their skin color. But some states make new rules to stop Black men from voting.

1920
The 19th Amendment is approved. It gives women the right to vote. But some state rules still prevent Black women from voting.

1924
A new law declares that Native Americans are U.S. citizens. That means they can vote. Some states block Native Americans from voting anyway.

1965
The Voting Rights Act is passed. The law says states can not prevent or make it difficult for Black people, Native Americans, and other groups to vote.

1971
The voting age is lowered from 21 to 18. Young Americans had argued that if they were old enough to fight in the Vietnam War (1962-1975), they were old enough to vote. 

1975
A new Voting Rights Act is passed. It helps people who don’t speak English. It says cities must have ballots in other languages.

1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act is passed. It says states must make sure people with disabilities are able to vote.

Will younger teens ever gain the right to vote in national elections? They might! Voting rights have changed throughout our country’s history. Here’s a look at some major moments.

1788-1789
When George Washington is sworn in as the first U.S. president, only white men who own land or a business can vote. (New Jersey is an exception. That state lets single wealthy women and land-owning African American men vote until 1807.) 

1870
The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives all men the right to vote, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But Southern states soon create restrictions that prevent Black men from voting in most areas for almost 100 more years.

1920
The 19th Amendment grants suffrage to women, after almost a century of struggle to achieve it. 

1924
The Indian Citizenship Act declares all Native Americans to be U.S. citizens, which in turn gives them full voting rights. But some states still block Native Americans from voting for decades to come.

1965
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act, which bans discriminatory practices that some states had used to keep Black people and other groups from voting. For example, in many Southern states, Black Americans had been required to pass literacy tests before they could vote.  

1971
Thousands of young Americans are dying in the Vietnam War, and many Americans argue that if 18-year olds are old enough to serve in the military, then they are old enough to vote. Their efforts culminate with the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowers the voting age from 21 to 18. 

1975
The Voting Rights Act is expanded to help U.S. citizens who don’t speak English. Cities with large populations of non-English speakers are required to provide ballots and voting instructions in other languages.

1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that people with disabilities have “a full and equal” opportunity to vote.” States must make all aspects of the voting process—from registration to polling places—accessible to people with disabilities.