James Youniss Ph.D. & Dan Hart Ed.D.

Youth in America

Myths About Granting the Vote to Teenagers

Teenagers ought to be allowed to vote!

Posted May 15, 2018

Students from Parkland, FL, sparked a nationwide movement to approach school safety through gun control legislation. They have been articulate in deflecting “prayer and sympathy” responses to shootings with focus on public debate regarding policies and laws about guns. Their actions and those of other youth from around the country have reopened the question of whether voting eligibility should be extended downward to ages 16- and 17-years. Has the time come to take this idea seriously? To advance public debate, we offer data-based considerations on five myths about lowering the voting age.  

National Youth Rights Association/Wikimedia Commons
Source: National Youth Rights Association/Wikimedia Commons

Myth 1. 16- and 17-year-olds lack the understanding of government and social-emotional capacities necessary to vote responsibly.

Assessments of civic knowledge in nationally representative samples indicate that 16- and 17-year-olds know about as much as 18- to 25-year-olds about government. The two age groups do not differ in political interest as indicated by frequency of attending to news. And the groups are alike in actual behavior of contacting an elected official to seek assistance or express a viewpoint. As to general cognitive ability, the two age groups score similarly on tests of social studies and reading comprehension.  

A real-world appraisal of the ability to vote responsibly comes from Austria where 16- and 17-year-olds have been eligible to vote since 2007.  Austrian youth’s views on important issues taken before elections predicted the candidates for whom they eventually voted, indicating that youth are as able as adults to use the vote to advance their political goals.     

Myth 2. The “Adolescent Brain” Is Immature Compared with the Brain of 21-year-olds.

It is tempting to view adolescents as neurologically impaired humans if only because of their proverbial risky behaviors such as drug use, car driving, violent crime, and unprotected sex. Caution is suggested here; all of those markers are at historic low points and trending downward. Nonetheless, there is good science indicating that adolescents have diminished self-control when experiencing extreme emotions and in the presence of peers. This is sometimes called “hot” or impulsive action, in contrast from calculated thinking or “cool” cognition.

But voting involves “cool” rather than “hot” cognition.  A voter typically makes decisions about the candidates and issues to support long in advance of voting day and then casts a ballot in the privacy of the voting booth.  Voting draws on the areas of the brain that are sufficiently mature to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to do so with sophistication equal to that of young adults. 

Suppose it is true that on average, the adolescent brain is less mature than the brains of adults. How then can we explain that on many tests of cognitive functioning, adolescents tend to outperform adults, especially elderly adults? Does that fact imply a deficit in the “elderly brain,” or suggest that the elderly, who vote at higher rates than any other age group, should be disqualified from voting?

Myth 3. There are no apparent benefits in granting the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.

Adult voting in a democracy is predicated on the right of individuals to represent their personal or group interests. We assume that adults’ interests involve family, work, culture, philosophy, values and the like. Overemphasis on this point tends to occlude the fact that adolescents are also citizens, citizenship not being defined constitutionally by age. Although few adolescents own homes or have started careers, they do have explicit concerns that are politically relevant. They care about school safety, the quality of educational instruction and its availability, access to higher education and its affordability, immigration policies, and more. They share concern about these matters with adults including their parents, potential employers, the law enforcement sector, and even financiers (if only because today’s youth generation stands to inherit an estimated $30 trillion  debt over the next 30 years). Yes, youth have a stake in policy and is not of minor consequence.

Political scientists who study voting agree that voting is a habit. Once people cast their first ballot, they tend to continue to appear at the polls on subsequent election days. At a time when voter turnout is an important topic, it would seem to be smart policy to start the voting habit early with the expectation of long-term payoff. A clever study by Holbein and Hillygus offers supporting evidence. In some states, youth are allowed to pre-register as voters before age 18 under the premise that this constitutes a form of commitment. In fact, in those states where pre-registration is permissible, the youth vote, defined as 18- 24 years of age, is higher than in states without pre-registration.

With reference to Austria again, the percentage of youth voters after 2007 exceeded the rate before 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote. At the very least, the reduction in age for voting eligibility was not irrelevant and may have helped form voting habits that will have staying power. Correlative data seem supportive of this possibility. Surveys of Austrian 16- and 17-year-olds in 2004, before the vote was legal, and in 2008 after the vote was permitted, show important differences. Self-defined interest in politics doubled from 31% to 62%. At the same time, youth who never or rarely followed the news declined by half, from 37% to  19%.

Myth 4. Young people don’t care about politics. And, anyway, they don’t vote.

This belief comes from the well-publicized fact that of all age groups eligible to vote, youth age 18- 24, has and continues to have the lowest voter turnout. This fact can be easily turned into a truism that youth are not interested in voting, or politics for that matter. This is a bit too glib for the full range of facts. Shea and Green interviewed hundreds of county-level party chairs about their focus and distribution of available funds. They found that few of the chairs expended money to turnout of the youth vote but most of them focused efforts on the elderly. At the same time, we learned from the Howard Dean and Obama campaigns that youth voters can be mobilized and will turnout when they are targeted with relevant messages. It follows that “the youth vote” is not a fixed thing because the rate of turnout for youth can be raised appreciably with proper encouragement.

It is equally important to recognize that rates of voting vary markedly within the youth age group.  Repeatedly in presidential elections in the twenty-first century youth with college experience or college degrees have voted at twice the rate of youth with high school diplomas or less. This difference is not well understood, but may be due to selective targeting or a differential sense of efficacy. Other evidence against a fixed “youth vote” comes from widely varying rates across states. Again in presidential elections during this century, youth in, for example, Iowa, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, have voted at nearly the double the rate of youth voters in Arizona, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas.   In sum, these recurring differential rates counter the argument that youth don’t care about politics, therefore, do not vote. If voting signifies caring about politics, then some youth care a lot and the key to higher rates is to mobilize youth appropriately.

Although a single case is hardly decisive, it seems worth pointing out that when 16- and 17-year-olds were legally allowed to vote, they turnout at a higher rate than most adult groups. This happened in Takoma Park, MD, when in 2013, 16- and 17-year-olds allowed to vote in municipal elections. In the next two elections these adolescents voted at rates two to three times higher than all other registered voters. 

Myth 5. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote flies in the face of American history and would set a new precedent.

It is often forgotten how young some of our Founders were when they fought militarily and argued philosophically for America’s freedom from English rule. The historian Ron Chernow’s biography and Lin-Manuel Miranda's stage production depict one of those youth, Alexander Hamilton who was politically active before age 21.  The period of youth then cannot be easily compared to today when the entire structure of society differs in terms of health, nutrition, and life expectancy. Nevertheless, being young was not an impediment to political engagement or the possession of keen political knowledge.

Jon Grinspan’s survey of youth’s involvement in American politics during the nineteenth century is equally revealing. After looking at the period 1840 to 1900, he concluded not only that youth were involved in the nation’s politics but that their energy and leadership “fueled American politics.” During their adolescence, youth organized political rallies, helped shape policy, and led candidates’ campaigns.  Becoming politically engaged was a rite of passage and taking on a political posture was central to forming a mature identity. Grinspan’s data cover large swaths of our geography and show how both females and males understood politics to be within their rightful domain. Evidence from this broad scope corresponds with facts from local studies such as Woods’s study of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Boston when youth participated in the burgeoning political party apparatus. Young people served at the polls and helped recruitment and maintenance of party discipline.

It seems that over the past century, a separation has occurred between our ideas of adolescence and citizenship. They were once treated as an identity; adolescents were citizens and were expected to act accordingly as participants in our political system. Perhaps it is time to return to that viewpoint. It is the right thing to do because youth are citizens. And it may be beneficial to our politics in which youth’s stake and contribution is as important as that of any other age group.

References

Hart, D., & Youniss, J.  (2017).  Renewing Democracy in Young America.  New York: Oxford University Press.  

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