Why We Need 16-Year-Old
In 2013, Takoma Park, MD became the first city in America to lower its voting age to 16. At the historic City Council meeting, organizer Bill Bystricky gave the following speech outlining the arguments for this bold move, arguments that could apply equally well to the entire nation.
Earlier in life, I was a high school teacher. I taught government. And I found that the greatest barrier to teaching government is embodied in the sentence I heard from students again and again. Students said to me, "Why should we care about this stuff — we can't even vote."
I knew, of course, that a few years later these same individuals would be saying, "Why should I vote when I can't understand this stuff?"
Telling people to study something because some day years in the future it will involve them ... doesn't work. Think about it. How much time would you spend learning a new computer program if you knew that you would not be allowed to touch a computer for another two years? More than likely, you would wait until you had access, then hope you could find someone to teach you.
For students to engage in our democracy, they need to be part of that democracy now, not just in some seemingly distant future. America's democracy surrounds these youth, but they are excluded from its benefits. They are locked out. The policies from those on high often tell students that they are not really part of this society, that their views and their values do not matter, that their participation is not wanted.
And in turn, many teenagers respond with sour grapes, telling themselves bitterly that America does not matter, that democracy does not really mean anything. They develop the habits that look, from a distance, like apathy. They remain unengaged, sometimes for life. Voter turn-out keeps sinking, and America looks less like the democracy we wish it to be.
This situation needs to change.
Takoma Park now has a wonderful opportunity to turn this around. Those aged 16-18 would be only a small share of the electorate, that's true, but by welcoming high school students to take part in our democracy, Takoma Park will send a big message that they, too, are part of this society and have a reason to take seriously their civic responsibilities. Students in Takoma Park will grow up with the habit of active and responsible citizenship.
Other nations have invited 16-year-olds to vote, and they have seen the benefits. There's no reason America should not enjoy the same level of democracy.
I hope in this year Takoma Park will have the courage to lead America in expanding and rejuvenating our democracy. This proposal is the way to do it.