Lower the Voting Age to 16
Laurence Steinberg; The New York Times. (Mar. 4, 2018)
The young people who have come forward to call for gun control in the wake of the mass
shooting at their high school in Parkland, Fla., are challenging the tiresome stereotype of
American kids as indolent narcissists whose brains have been addled by smartphones. They offer
an inspiring example of thoughtful, eloquent protest.
Unfortunately, when it comes to electing lawmakers whose decisions about gun control and other
issues affect their lives, these high schoolers lack any real power. This needs to change: The
federal voting age in the United States should be lowered from 18 to 16.
Skeptics will no doubt raise questions about the competence of 16-year-olds to make informed
choices in the voting booth. Aren't young people notoriously impulsive and hotheaded, their
brains not fully developed enough to make good judgments?
Yes and no. When considering the intellectual capacity of teenagers, it is important to distinguish
between what psychologists call ''cold'' and ''hot'' cognition.
Cold cognitive abilities are those we use when we are in a calm situation, when we are by
ourselves and have time to deliberate and when the most important skill is the ability to reason
logically with facts. Voting is a good example of this sort of situation.
Studies of cold cognition have shown that the skills necessary to make informed decisions are
firmly in place by 16. By that age, adolescents can gather and process information, weigh pros
and cons, reason logically with facts and take time before making a decision. Teenagers may
sometimes make bad choices, but statistically speaking, they do not make them any more often
than adults do.
Hot cognitive abilities are those we rely on to make good decisions when we are emotionally
aroused, in groups or in a hurry. If you are making a decision when angry or exhausted, the most
critical skill is self-regulation, which enables you to control your emotions, withstand pressure
from others, resist temptation and check your impulses. Unlike cold cognitive abilities, selfregulation does not mature until about age 22, research has shown. (This is a good reason to raise
the minimum age for purchasing firearms from 18 to 21 or older, as some have proposed.)
This psychological evidence is backed up by neuroscientific findings. Neuroimaging studies
show that brain systems necessary for cold cognition are mature by mid-adolescence, whereas
those that govern self-regulation are not fully developed until a person's early 20s.
If the voting age were lowered, would that necessitate changing other laws to bring them into
alignment? Of course not. We use a wide variety of chronological ages to draw lines between
minors and adults when it comes to smoking, driving, viewing violent or sexually explicit
movies, being eligible for the death penalty and drinking alcohol. Although the specific ages
used for these purposes often lack a good rationale, there is no reason lowering the voting age
would require lowering, say, the drinking age, any more than allowing people to drive at 16
should permit them to drink or smoke at that age as well.
In addition to the scientific case for lowering the voting age, there is also a civic argument.
Consider the dozen or so countries like Argentina, Austria, Brazil and Nicaragua that allow
people to vote at 16 in national, state or local elections. In such countries, voter turnout among
16- and 17-year-olds is significantly higher than it is among older young adults.
This is true in parts of the United States as well. In Takoma Park, Md., a city that permits 16- and
17-year-olds to vote in local elections, that age group is twice as likely to vote than are 18-yearolds.
Why is higher turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds so important? Because there is evidence that
people who don't vote the first time they are eligible are less likely to vote regularly in the future.
Considering that people between 18 and 24 have the lowest voter turnout of any age group in the
United States (a country that has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout in the developed world),
allowing people to begin voting at an age at which they are more likely to vote might increase
future turnout at all ages.
The last time the United States lowered the federal voting age was in 1971, when it went from 21
to 18. In that instance, the main motivating force was outrage over the fact that 18-year-olds
could be sent to fight in Vietnam but could not vote.
The proposal to lower the voting age to 16 is motivated by today's outrage that those most
vulnerable to school shootings have no say in how such atrocities are best prevented. Let's give
those young people more than just their voices to make a change.
Don’t Lower the Voting Age to 16
Jeff Jacoby. 15 March 2019. Boston Globe
Ayanna Pressley's first legislative proposal as a Massachusetts congresswoman was an
amendment to lower the voting age for federal elections from 18 to 16. On March 7, the House
of Representatives made short work of the measure, defeating it by a large bipartisan majority.
In her floor remarks before the roll call, Pressley claimed that 16- and 17-year-old kids are
qualified to vote by virtue of the “wisdom" and “maturity" that comes from being alive and
confronting the “challenges, hardships, and threats" of 2019. “Some have questioned the
maturity of our youth," she told her colleagues. “I don't." If that was her best argument for
lowering the voting age, it's no wonder 70 percent of House members weren't persuaded.
Then again, if Pressley has such unquestioning faith in the maturity of high school sophomores,
why seek merely to give them the vote? To be consistent, she should push as well to lower the
legal drinking age to 16. And the minimum age for buying cigarettes, handguns, and recreational
marijuana. And the age at which one can adopt a child. And at which a criminal offender is
automatically prosecuted as an adult. Come to think of it, Pressley should also want to lower the
age of enlistment in the military to 16, and to require everyone reaching that age to register with
the Selective Service System. After all, if the wisdom and maturity of 16-year-olds qualifies
them to vote, why shouldn't it qualify them to be treated as adults in every other way?
The reason all these activities are legally barred to kids in their mid-teens is because, as almost
all adults understand, the “maturity of our youth" is in fact highly questionable. Certainly there
are some 16-year-olds who are thoughtful and astute, but as a general rule — and public policy
relies on generalizations — maturity comes later. That's a function not just of experience, but
also of biology: Adult and teen brains operate differently. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the
brain associated with rational judgment and awareness of long-term consequences, doesn't fully
develop until the mid-20s. Teens more often rely on the amygdala, the more emotional, primitive
part of the brain. It isn't from gratuitous animus that car-rental agencies make it difficult for
young drivers to rent a vehicle. Or that the Constitution establishes 25 as the minimum age to be
a member of Congress.
Of course, another reason that 16-year-olds are subject to so many restrictions that don't apply to
grown-ups is that they don't know anything — or in any case, they don't know enough to be
trusted to make sound decisions about liquor, firearms, joining the Marines, and governing the
United States. The ignorance of teens is practically a cliché. “If you go to any college campus
and talk to the first thousand 18-year-olds you meet," wrote Josh Gelernter in 2014, “you'll find
five who are qualified to vote and 800 who don't know who Churchill was."
In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age nationwide from 21 to 18, largely on the
strength of the claim that if 18-year-olds were old enough to be drafted — many young men
were being called up and sent to Vietnam — they were old enough to be given the vote. The
moral force of that argument couldn't be denied, but let's face it: The quality of American politics
and governance wasn't improved by letting 18-year-olds vote.
Like Pressley now, Senator Ted Kennedy then was sure that giving teens the vote would be a
boon. “We will gain a group of enthusiastic, sensitive, idealistic and vigorous new voters,"
Kennedy said at the time. He was wrong. Newly enfranchised young people immediately became
the least engaged cohort, invariably turning out to vote at a lower rate than any other age group.
Speculation about a “youth wave" revives every election season, but it never amounts to
anything: Turnout among voters in their teens and early 20s always lags far behind turnout
among their elders.
I don't share the popular fetish for maximizing voter turnout, and have long argued that people
who don't have an interest in voting shouldn't be hectored to do so. Nonetheless, if Pressley
wants to increase the level of voter participation and involvement, I have a suggestion.
Instead of trying to lower the voting age, Boston's new congresswoman should lead an effort to
raise it. Let's require Americans to wait until they are 25 before they can cast a ballot. That
would immediately boost voter turnout, since participation in elections rises as the concerns of
adulthood rise. The more likely people are to have jobs, to support themselves, to be married, to
worry about schools or mortgages or taxes, the more likely they are to take an interest in how
they are governed — and the more likely to show up on Election Day.
Pandering to children will do nothing to elevate our democracy. Restoring the link between
democracy and adulthood, on the other hand, just might. Young people who join the military
should immediately be entitled to vote; everyone else should have to wait until they turn 25.
Keep Americans from the polls until their prefrontal cortex has finished growing. More mature
voters might just mean more mature politics. Isn't that an outcome worth pursuing?
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