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Will Decreasing the Voting Age Increase Engagement?

takoma voteIn honor of Election Day, I thought it would be appropriate to share a recent development I heard about from a Washington Post article that might interest some in the NCDD community: today, the country’s first 16- and 17-year old voters will legally cast their ballots.

It might be a bit hard for many to believe, but the city of Takoma Park, Maryland’s election information page confirms the fact, saying,

In 2013, the Takoma Park City Council amended the City Charter to update Takoma Park’s voting and election laws. The amendment expanded the right to vote in City elections to 16 and 17 year old residents…

Earlier this year, the City of Takoma Park, Maryland began considering lowering the voting age to 16 years old instead of 18, and in May, officially made the change to the city’s charter. The change was made by Takoma Park’s city council — and contentiously for some, not by its voters — with a very specific logic.

The reasoning for the decision, which is listed in the amendment to the city’s charter, states that

…allowing 16 and 17 year olds to register and vote will enable them to fully participate in City elections while in high school and before leaving home, thereby encouraging the establishment of a life-long habit of voting.

The Takoma Park city council hopes that by allowing younger people to vote, it will not only increase voter turn out in its elections, but that the people who begin voting so young will develop civic habits that will stick with them.

To me, the reasoning seems sound. If young people are able to engage meaningfully in the political system during formative high school years while they still have the support and encouragement of teachers and parents, they will probably think more about voting and participating in other public forums in the future after they’ve left home.

What’s most exciting to me about this change is that it conceivably opens up space for young people to cut their teeth in civic engagement by participating in local school board elections. It’s not hard to imagine young people being engaged far beyond simply voting if they had a real say in a school board races. They would be the primary stakeholders, after all, because the decision would impact them more directly than maybe any other kind of political competition. Just think how different school board campaigns would look if many of the voters deciding the outcome were current students.

But does the reasoning of the Takoma Park city council hold up? Will letting younger people vote really increase voting and other forms of public engagement in the long run? Would you want to see this kind of change in your community? How do you think it would change the civic sphere where you live if 16- and 17-year olds could vote? Could this be potentially negative?

Interestingly, Takoma Park has been pushing the envelope on engaging its residents by expanding voting rights for some time now. Not only did 16- and 17-year olds gain the right to vote, but this year’s amendment also reestablished the right for convicted felons who had completed their sentences as a way to facilitate their re-engagement with their communities.

In addition, and much more controversially, the Takoma Park website also notes that

Residents of Takoma Park who are not United States citizens have been eligible to register and vote in City elections since 1993.

All of this raises questions about whether and how simply letting more people vote will change the way that the public participates in the broader civic sphere.

What do you think? Can expanding voter franchise increase public engagement? What do these sorts of changes mean for our field? Let us know what you think in the comment section, or share your ideas on NCDD’s Facebook discussion page!

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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