I support lowering the voting age, because then most people would be in school when they became eligible to vote, and schools could teach them both the mechanics of elections and some neutral principles and skills helpful for responsible political participation. Today, we don’t teach voting mechanics much, and even if we did, most students would have to wait years before practicing their knowledge. Previous research shows that voting is habitual,* so raising the turnout of 16-year-olds should increase participation for decades to come.
Mark Franklin found that turnout during the first election at which a generation is eligible to vote has lasting effects. He argued that lowering the voting age to 18 had caused turnout to fall in most democracies, because 18-year-olds are less likely to vote than 21-year olds.** True, but 16-year-olds might be more likely to vote than 18-year-olds because they are in school settings where voting can be encouraged and become normative.
Now Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins have published a psychology article addressing the main argument against 16-year-old voters: that they are too young to be informed or wise participants.*** Hart and Atkins find that Americans at age 17 score about the same on questions about political knowledge, tolerance, political efficacy, perceived civic skills, and community service as 21-year-olds, probably because their experience with civics classes, service projects, and so on are more recent. The rate of improvement on these questions is rapid from age 14-18, but then tapers off or even declines, so that 16- and 17-year-olds are on a par with people in their twenties.
Another way of looking at the data is that teenagers’ scores are quite close to the average for all adults.
Hart and Atkins note that teenagers have somewhat different political priorities from older people, reflecting their different interests. For example, they are more favorable to education spending. Basic democratic principles suggest that if they have distinctive values and interests and are capable of voting, they should be allowed to do so.
Finally, an interesting theoretical observation from the paper:
- young adolescents’ brains differ from those of young adults in ways significant for decision-making …. For example, young adolescents’ brains seem particularly sensitive to reward and novelty and lack full maturation in areas responsible for the modulation of emotion and impulse control. … While it is likely true that adolescents’ capacities to restrain impulsive, emotional behavior may be reduced relative to that of adults, and their life experiences are relatively circumscribed, these capacities do not figure prominently in citizenship and particularly in voting. Neither the sense of membership, the concern with rights, nor the ability to participate in the community rests heavily upon the ability to resist emotional, impulsive actions. Citizenship and voting in the electoral process require, for the most part, decisions made over long periods of time, which allows for deliberation and discussion with others. To date, there is no neurological evidence that indicates that 16- and 17-year-olds lack the requisite neurological maturation necessary for citizenship or for responsible voting; nor is there evidence to indicate that a breadth of life experience is necessary for effective citizenship.
* Eric Plutzer, “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth,” The American Political Science Review 96/1 (March 2002), pp. 41-56.
**Mark N. Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
***Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins, “American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds are Ready to Vote,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 63 (January 2011), pp. 201-221