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Benjamin Oosterhoff Ph.D.

Should 16- and 17-Year-Olds Be Able to Vote?

Lowering the voting age may have important social and developmental benefits.

With the United States 2018 midterm elections rapidly approaching, the topic of voting—particularly who should be able to vote—is becoming a point of political debate. Several countries around the world, including Austria, Brazil, Malta, and Scotland, have lowered the voting age to 16. This trend has also started in many communities in the United States, including three cities in Maryland—Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Greenbelt—as well as Berkeley, California. Several 16- and 17-year-olds in the U.S. are employed and pay taxes, can be tried in court as adults, and can be legally emancipated from their parents. However, in many places, they are not allowed to vote. Where do we draw the line between the responsibilities of 16- and 17-year-olds as citizens and the rights these teens should be granted in exchange?

Source: "Vote" by mohamed_hassan/CC0
Source: "Vote" by mohamed_hassan/CC0

There are several considerations to this debate, but this post is going to focus on two important questions: First, do youth have the competency to vote? Second, what are the social and personal costs and benefits for allowing youth to vote?

Are youth developmentally prepared to vote?

In context of psychology and political science, this argument has largely centered on the question of whether 16- and 17-year-olds possess the "political maturity” of 18-plus-year-olds. Many scholars measure political maturity with varying combinations of characteristics that we would like to see in voters—having high levels of political interest and engagement, high political knowledge, and political attitudes that are somewhat stable and consistent.

Research with British youth has found that 16- and 17-year-olds have lower political maturity compared to adults ( Chan & Clayton, 2006 )—they have less political interest, they are less likely to belong to a political party, and they have less factual knowledge about the political system. Yet, other studies with American teens have found 16- and 17-year-olds having similar (and in some cases greater) political efficacy, knowledge, interest, tolerance, and skills than 18-year-olds ( Hart & Atkins, 2011 ) and research on Austrian youth indicates that the quality of 16- and 17-year-olds voting decisions are similar to older voters ( Wagner, Johann, & Kritzinger, 2012 ).

Source: "Hands" by Kaz/CC0
Source: "Hands" by Kaz/CC0

These limited and mixed findings do not necessarily answer the question of whether 16- and 17-year-olds are politically mature enough to vote, but we should take a moment to ask ourselves why teens might have lower political maturity in the first place. Are age differences in political interest and knowledge the result of insufficient developmental capacities, or is it simply that 16- and 17-year-olds have been traditionally excluded from the political system? Some have argued the former ( Dawkins & Cornwell, 2003 ), yet there is no neurobiological evidence to support this claim. If it is the latter, possible differences in political maturity will likely be a result of the current sociopolitical system and the civic experiences available to youth. Indeed, classrooms that allow youth to cast “mock votes” have teens with higher civic knowledge and intentions to vote in the future ( Meirick & Wackman, 2004 ), and research on Austrian youth shows that lowering the voting age to 16 increased youth political interest ( Zeglovits & Zandonella, 2013 ). These findings would suggest that lowering the voting age to 16 may actually increase ‘political maturity’ over-time.

What are the potential costs and benefits for allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote?

Regarding whether or not teens have the political and cognitive maturity to make informed voting decisions, a looming question remains: Is it worth the trouble? Some might argue that by requiring adolescents to pay taxes, we should provide them with an opportunity to voice their opinion on how their tax money is used through voting. Additionally, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote would increase the likelihood that our representatives reflect a broader range of the population. But are there other potential costs and benefits?

Recent research suggests that young adults (age 18-27) who vote have better health, higher education, and higher personal income four years later relative those who did not vote ( Ballard et al., 2018 ). Importantly, those who did and did not vote were matched on several demographic and health variables, which lowers the likelihood that other factors explain this effect. The health and socio-economic benefits may be present among younger teens as well.

Additionally, youth who are civically engaged are likely to remain engaged throughout adulthood ( Hart et al., 2007 ), meaning that lowering the voting age to 16 may increase voting rates of youth 18+ over time.

So what are the costs? It is possible that 16- and 17-year-olds will be granted the right to vote but will not exercise this right. However, research from Austria has found the opposite pattern, with 16- and 17-year-olds voting at a higher rate than 18-year-olds ( Zeglovits & Aichholzer, 2014 ).

Another potential cost concerns the "noise" youth might introduce into the political system. If the youth vote is based on low levels of political knowledge and attitude consistency, will teens vote in a way that is uninformed, or that does not represent their beliefs? Currently, there is very little empirical support for this concern and there is greater evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds possess similar "political maturity" as young adults ( Hart & Atkins, 2011 ; Wagner, Johann, & Kritzinger, 2012 ).

We do not yet have clear answers to the philosophical questions underlying whether allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote truly represents an ideal democracy. However, existing theory and research in developmental psychology indicates that youth are not only capable of being a mature voter, but allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote will likely result in important developmental and social benefits.

References

Ballard, P. J., Hoyt, L. T., & Pachucki, M. C. (2018). Impacts of adolescent and young adult civic engagement on health and socioeconomic status in adulthood. Child Development. Doi: 10.1111/cdev.12998

Chan, T. W., & Clayton, M. (2006). Should the voting age be lowered to sixteen? Normative and empirical considerations. Political Studies, 54, 533-558. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2006.00620.x

Dawkins, R., Cornwell, E., 2003. Dodgy frontal lobes, y’dig? The brain just isn’t ready to vote at 16. In: The Guardian (13th December).

Hart, D., & Atkins, R. (2011). American sixteen-and seventeen-year-olds are ready to vote. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 633, 201-222. Doi: 10.1177/0002716210382395

Hart, D., Donnelly, T. M., Youniss, J., & Atkins, R. (2007). High school community service as a predictor of adult voting and volunteering. American Educational Research Journal, 44, 197-219. Doi: 10.3102/0002831206298173

Meirick, P. C., & Wackman, D. B. (2004). Kids voting and political knowledge: Narrowing gaps, informing votes. Social Science Quarterly, 85, 1161-1177. Doi: 10.1111/j.0038-4941.2004.00269.x

Wagner, M., Johann, D., & Kritzinger, S. (2012). Voting at 16: Turnout and the quality of vote choice. Electoral Studies, 31, 372-383. Doi: 10.1016/j.electstud.2012.01.007

Zeglovits, E., & Aichholzer, J. (2014). Are people more inclined to vote at 16 than at 18? Evidence for the first-time voting boost among 16-to 25-year-olds in Austria. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 24, 351-361. Doi: 10.1080/17457289.2013.872652

Zeglovits, E., & Zandonella, M. (2013). Political interest of adolescents before and after lowering the voting age: the case of Austria. Journal of Youth Studies, 16, 1084-1104. Doi: 10.1080/13676261.2013.793785

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About the Author

Benjamin Oosterhoff, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Montana State University and the director of the Montana Positive Youth Development (PYD) Lab.