Answering that question has been a driving force for change throughout United States history. And in a few cities and towns, the rules have already evolved to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in some races.
In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, became the first city in the U.S. to allow people age 16 and up to vote in municipal elections, with two other Maryland cities, Hyattville and Greenbelt, and the town of Riverdale Park, following in years since. In 2016, Berkeley, California, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that extended to 16-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections.
The legal voting age of 18 for state and federal elections is still a relatively new development in American political history, and was a largely unpopular idea with the majority of Americans until the mid-1950s. It wasn’t until 1971 that the passage of the 26th Amendment officially granted 18-year-olds the right to vote in federal elections, which was the culmination of a campaign that dated back to World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his support for lowering the draft age from 21 to 18.
Today, teenagers are again on the front lines of social change, leading movements like Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and the Sunrise Movement, which have impacted the political attitudes of a generation of young people and helped spur to action millions of their older counterparts. Teen girls, in particular, have helped champion these fights: “A lot of credit goes to young people who have…helped open a lot of minds to the idea that young people have a stake in our democracy and are very eager to participate in it…and actually care about public policy, understand how it affects them, and want to have a voice influencing it,” says Brandon Klugman, campaign manager for Vote16USA, a national campaign organized by the civics education organization Generation Citizen. “Obviously, youth-led political engagement existed long before [this moment], but maybe it didn’t get the attention [it] always deserved.”
During the 2018 midterm elections, young people ages 18-24 showed up to the polls in record numbers, helping to elect the most racially and ethnically diverse — and the most female — congressional class in history, according to the Pew Research Center. A report released in May from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that in those midterm elections, white, Black, and Latinx women between ages 18-24 registered and voted at higher rates than their male peers; and Black and Latinx women were the most likely among all groups to say they were motivated to get involved in politics, or be active in a social movement, followed by white women. And it’s women — particularly young women of color — who stand to have their voices most amplified by the movement to expand voting rights to 16- and 17- year-olds.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, agrees: “Anytime a person sees injustice in the system or the community, those are the people that are going to be really most committed to voting.… In particular, with cases of racism or community violence, young women, especially young women of color, have been the most passionate advocates for those issues.”
Young people — again, particularly young women — see themselves as civic actors, but social constructs have limited the ideas about how much civic responsibility teenagers should take on. “I think we do have a blind spot on what young people are capable of,” Kawashima-Ginsberg tells Teen Vogue.
Last year, a poll commissioned by The Hill and HarrisX found that 84% of registered voters opposed granting 16-year-olds the right to vote, while 75% opposed granting suffrage to 17-year- olds. Yet research indicates that 16-year-olds are just as capable of voting as adults. A 2011 study published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that 16-year-olds demonstrated understanding similar to that of adults between the ages of 19-30 on measures of civic knowledge, political skills, and political efficacy, but scored markedly higher than 14-year-olds, suggesting significant developments in young people’s understanding of these concepts before age 16, but little after.
In March 2019, 126 members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of lowering the federal voting age from 18 to 16 after the bill was introduced on the House floor by Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). The bill failed to pass, but it spoke to the movement’s growing strength. This November, San Francisco could become the first major U.S. city to extend the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds when voters decide on a charter amendment to allow people 16 and up to vote in municipal elections.
It’s an initiative that’s come a long way in recent years, according to Arianna Nassiri, 17, a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission, who worked on this proposal and another that went before the city’s voters in 2016, but fell short by just 4% of the vote. Arianna has pushed to shift the language of this latest effort to be “less of a campaign to lower the voting age, but more of a campaign to expand democratic rights.”
“[Like] most movements that try to expand suffrage…it’s bringing as many voices of people who can speak to their lived experiences as possible,” says Tyler Okeke, 18. Now a student at the University of Chicago, Tyler served as a student representative on the Los Angeles Unified School District board during his senior year of high school, when he authored a resolution directing the superintendent to report on the feasibility of a ballot measure to allow Los Angeles 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections.
That expansion is similar to the long process of incremental change that has historically led to other major legislative and cultural changes in the United States, including universal women’s suffrage and marriage equality. “We felt that it was a step to extend democracy for everyone. And we felt that this was a first step, because we are students, and schools impact us the most because we are there every day,” Malia Liao tells Teen Vogue. Malia, 17, a high school student and organizer with Oakland Kids First, was part of the Bay Area city’s recent successful effort to put a charter amendment on the November ballot that, if passed, will enable 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections. Oakland City Council members agreed unanimously to put the idea before voters in November.