Give young people the vote

Since the start of the pandemic, many 16- and 17-year-old Americans have proven that they possess the social responsibility and political maturity to help elect better leaders. Their future is at stake — perhaps more than ever — in the decisions our society makes about climate change and global health. An aging electorate has not shown that it can make better choices. 

The United States should do what the new governing coalition in Germany, Europe’s largest democracy, has pledged to do: lower the voting age to 16. It is time to give younger voices — more than 8 million men and women — a chance to be heard.

The challenges of COVID-19 have hit Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) particularly hard. They have endured separation from peers, online Zoom schooling and confinement during the years they most seek independence and adventure. Many have become primary caregivers for siblings, parents and other relatives, or have had to confront the mortality of loved ones. They have learned to vaccinate, mask up, socially distance and adopt other protection measures. 

ADVERTISEMENT

We have only begun to understand the social effects of these experiences, but no one can deny the pervasive resilience and sense of interdependence among those attending high school. They understand the tough realities of our world from the personal trials few of their predecessors endured. They have earned a say in our elections. 

The time has passed for arguing that 16- and 17-year-olds are “not ready” to vote. They are better prepared to address crucial issues confronting our democracy than any generation since those who returned from World War II.

Every 50 years, Americans have expanded the eligible voting electorate as historical circumstances support a pragmatic and moral claim to enfranchise more of the population. There is nothing sacrosanct about race, sex or age when it comes to voting. The Civil War opened voting rights for Black men. Industrialization and World War I helped women gain suffrage. World War II and the Vietnam War pushed the voting age down from 21 to the age of military service at the time: 18. Today, men and women under 18 serve in all of our military branches (the legal age is 17), as well as on the frontlines in hospitals, grocery stores and other essential facilities that are high-risk for COVID.

Reducing the voting age is something we can do, despite partisan gridlock. The Constitution does not set a minimum age for voting. The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, stipulates that 18-year-old citizens cannot have their right to vote denied “on account of age.” It does not prohibit those under 18 from voting, and some states allow 17-year-olds to participate in primaries.

States should take the lead as they did before the passage of the 19th Amendment, when women voted in 27 states. State legislatures set requirements for voting in elections within their borders, and they can reduce the minimum voting age to 16 through legislation. Congress can do the same for federal elections, but it is not necessary, since American elections are primarily run by the states.

ADVERTISEMENT

These changes should begin before the 2022 elections. Opening the electorate to younger voters will help to reverse the recent efforts in some states to restrict voting. A larger, younger population of voters may break apart some of the partisan divides, forcing statewide candidates to address issues that Generation Z cares about. Several gerrymandered congressional districts might become more competitive. 

Fourteen states with Democratic legislatures and governors — California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Hawaii — could set a new voting age. We would expect moderate and young Democratic candidates to benefit most. This would be especially true in the battleground states of Nevada and Maine where new voters might tip elections to Democrats. In a closely divided Senate and House of Representatives, younger voters in a few areas could make a difference in determining which party holds the majority. This is also true for presidential elections. 

Republican states soon would face pressures to enfranchise their own 16- and 17-year-olds. Which parents would accept that their high schoolers remain locked out of voting booths? Younger voters in Republican states could help break the extremists’ stranglehold on the party, pulling some candidates back to centrist positions on the environment, health and social issues.

In one way, Generation Z already has entered politics. After George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, many young people took action to try to reverse the country’s history of racism. They participated in peaceful demonstrations. They gained hands-on experience with organizing, lobbying and community-building. And they inspired a racial awakening that reverberated through media, government, education and business. Young people demand that diversity, equity and inclusion are mainstream subjects in our society. They have proven they can make change, even involving controversial issues.

Climate change and health disparities are potential apocalypses that confound older voters and their elected representatives. Congress has remained deadlocked while the planet warms with extreme weather events; more than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID; and life expectancy has declined in parts of the United States. Recent surveys show that members of Generation Z take these issues seriously and they are determined to make a difference. Why should those in high school stay content to watch their elders do little? They have a strong moral claim on choosing leaders who might help save the planet and prevent more pandemics.

ADVERTISEMENT

The rise in mass shootings in the United States, particularly in schools, also deserves mention. Recent policy decisions about policing and gun ownership have failed to reverse the frequency of domestic massacres. Students may die because of inaction from politicians; shouldn’t students have some say in who holds elected offices?

Lowering the voting age is not a cure-all for the many challenges confronting the American political system. It will expand the electorate by only about 3 percent, but that may encourage additional attention to neglected citizens. It could make our elections more representative of our nation as a whole. New voters promise new possibilities when advanced democracies, such as the United States and Germany, need them most.

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He is the co-host of the podcast This is Democracy.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Zachary Suri, a student at Liberal Arts and Science Academy High School in Austin, Texas, a published poet and co-host of the podcast This is Democracy, contributed to this report.