Research Reveals Six Reasons that
16 is a Better Voting Age than 18
In several leading democracies today, 16-year-olds enjoy full participation as voters. But as recently as two years ago, every 16-year-old in America was locked out of the voting booth.
That's changing. Today, more than one American city has a voting age of 16, and the idea is spreading quickly.
On this page, we offer you the scientific research and the empirical evidence that shows 16 is a better voting age than 18.
1) 16-Year-Olds Are Eager To Participate
We often hear the claim that teenagers are apathetic and more interested in consumerism and celebrity gossip than they are in politics. It's not surprising, then, that some adults think teenagers don't even want to vote.
To students of history, this prejudice is even less surprising. A hundred years ago, many Americans insisted most women didn't want to vote, either, and that suffragists were outliers among the female population.
The reality, however, is that 16- and 17-year-olds are eager to be included in our democracy. When Takoma Park, MD finally invited 16-year-olds to vote, the voter turnout rate among those younger than 18 was four times the turnout rate among those older than 18 (1).
And when cities debate the issue of including teenagers, the city council chambers inevitably get packed with teenagers giving up an evening of watching TV or doing homework to join the discussion. This was true in the well-educated suburb of Takoma Park, and it was true in the working class city of Hyattsville.
2) 16-Year-Olds are Educated Enough to Meet America's Voting Standards
We often hear the claim that 16-year-olds aren't smart enough to be trusted with votes. But how smart must adults be to vote?
At one time, literacy tests decided who was smart enough to vote. But the 1965 Voting Rights Act replaced literacy tests with a legal assumption that any adult who had passed 6th grade was educated enough to vote. Fifty years later, that remains the highest educational requirement America recognizes (though most states don't even require voters to have that much education).
Nearly all 16-year-olds in the United States have passed 6th grade and several grades beyond it. Therefore, they easily exceed the intellectual qualifications to vote.
3) 16-Year-Old Voters Make Independent Judgments
Some adults fear that teenaged voters will just vote the way their parents do, but the science shows that, in fact, 16-year-old voters think for themselves just fine.
When Scotland held their 2014 referendum on independence, Dr. Jan Eichhorn conducted a study on voters aged 16-17 and found that only 56% of such voters happened to vote the same way as their parents. Since voters were given only two choices ("yes" or "no"), 56% is barely more than would occur from random chance. The conclusion of this study: "[Y]oung people are not simply following the views of mum or dad, and ... there is no reason to believe that they are unable or unwilling to make up their own minds about which way to vote." (2)
A 2012 study, this one on 16- and 17-year-old voters in Austria, found that "the quality of these citizens' choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well. These results are encouraging for supporters of a lower voting age." (3)
4) Young Voters Take Civic Responsibilities Seriously
Some adults fear that 16-year-old voters would elect movie stars instead of serious leaders, but evidence shows the opposite is true.
When California elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor, despite this movie star's lack of experience in governance, exit polls conducted for the Washington Post showed the age-group that most heavily voted for the action movie hero was those aged 30-44. The youngest voters, in fact, were the age group most likely to vote instead for qualified civic leaders (4).
That shouldn't be too surprising. A 2011 study by Rutgers University found that "American adolescents manifest levels of development in each quality of citizenship that are approximately the same as those apparent in young American adults who are allowed to vote. The lack of relevant differences in capacities for citizenship between 16- and 17-year-olds and those legally enfranchised makes current laws arbitrary, denying those younger than age 18 the right to vote." (5)
5) A Lower Voting Age Prompts Teenagers to Become More Engaged in Their Society
The Rutgers University study showed that 16-year-old Americans already have the same level of political sophistication as Americans in their 20s. (5) That is remarkable, given that people excluded from our democracy have less incentive to study it.
What is not surprising: when the voting age is lowered from 18 to 16, 16- and 17-year-olds suddenly become even more engaged in their society and more politically sophisticated. When Austria lowered its voting age to 16, a study published in the Journal of Youth Studies found that "political interest of 16- and 17-year-olds was higher after lowering the voting age [and] the development of political interest among young people seems to be associated with the 'life event' of enfranchisement." (9)
Giving teenagers hands-on experience with democracy makes them better students of social science, of the workings of their government and of the political issues at hand. It makes it easier for them to be engaged, active, and responsible citizens.
6) Adults Warm Quickly to the Lower Voting Age
Perhaps the most promising fact about letting 16-year-olds vote is that most adults quickly warm to the idea once these adults have had time to experience the rewards of fuller democracy.
Takoma Park was the first city in the United States to invite 16-year-olds into the voting booth. The issue had been hotly debated in the City Council, but once the change was implemented, citizens of all ages came to embrace it. A 2014 survey of all voters in Takoma Park showed that 72% now supported the lower voting age. (6) Perhaps more telling is that, after the City Council voted for this change, not one City Council member had the least trouble getting re-elected. (7)
Hyattsville spent three months debating the idea, but over the course of those three months, the City Council evolved from being sharply divided to being unanimous in welcoming 16-year-old voters. (8)
Once adults have a chance to read the science, to weigh the logic, and to experience the improvements to their communities when youth are embraced as members of those communities rather than made to feel like captives, once parents experience the joy of bringing their son or their daughter to cast their first ballot, adults agree the change is a good one. This, more than anything else, is why the movement for a voting age of 16 is growing quickly.