Editor’s Note: Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights and constitutional law. He is the co-editor of “Election Law Stories” and is currently writing a new book on positive voting rights enhancements. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas. The opinions expressed are his own.
The real adults in the room are the youth from Parkland, Florida, who are speaking out about the need for meaningful gun control laws. They are proving that civic engagement among young people can make a difference. The ironic part? They can’t even vote yet.
Several municipalities in the United States allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. Takoma Park, Maryland, was the first city to lower the voting age, thanks mostly to the advocacy efforts of youth themselves who convinced the city council that they should have a voice in local governance. Other cities in Maryland, like Hyattsville and Greenbelt, have followed suit. Larger cities are also debating the measure: In 2016, Berkeley, California, voters agreed to lower the voting age to 16 for school board elections, while a ballot proposition in San Francisco to lower the voting age for all city elections narrowly lost. Advocates are likely to try again in San Francisco in 2020.
Lowering the voting age has the potential to increase turnout significantly. One of the biggest predictors of whether someone will vote is if they voted previously. Yet turning 18 is a tough time to expect young people to start the habit of voting. They are usually leaving home for school or the workforce, and they must navigate the hurdles of registering and requesting an absentee ballot if they are not at home. By contrast, more youth are likely to vote if they start the habit earlier, when they are in the supportive environment of school and home, especially if we also improve civics education. They will then continue that habit later in life.
What does this have to do with Parkland, Florida, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting? In the aftermath, survivors of the tragedy have spoken out loudly against politicians’ refusal to pass meaningful gun control reform. They have quite literally kept the issue at the forefront of a nationwide debate, refusing to allow legislators to offer “thoughts and prayers” and nothing more. By engaging in respectful and forceful advocacy, these youth are proving how important it is to include young people’s voices in political debate.
One of the most common arguments against lowering the voting age is that 16- and 17-year-olds are not mature enough to take on the responsibilities of choosing our elected officials. Studies of cognitive brain development prove otherwise, showing that brains are fully formed for “cold cognition,” or reasoned, deliberate decision making, by age 16, which is the kind of thinking needed for voting.
The Parkland teenagers are proving this point. The young advocates from Stoneman Douglas High are mostly 16 and 17 years old, and they are the ones most forcefully demanding change. They have started the #NeverAgain Movement, planning a national protest and walkout. They are calling out politicians like Donald Trump and Marco Rubio for their failure to support gun control laws and for their ties to the NRA. They are holding rallies. They are engaging the media, keeping national attention on the issue.
Yet they can’t formally participate in our democracy through voting for a few more years.
The gunman, on the other hand, was 19. He was already eligible to vote. But of course reaching that age doesn’t guarantee maturity.
To be sure, lowering the voting age is a complex issue, but it is not unprecedented. In addition to the US cities mentioned above, several countries, like Austria and Scotland, let 16- and 17-year-olds vote.
And it seems likely that the United Kingdom will pass the reform in the near future.
These experiences show that lowering the voting age, coupled with better civics education, can energize a whole new generation of smart civic leaders. Perhaps it is best to start with more US cities and then let the movement spread. But the movement is ongoing.
Unfortunately, a tragedy happened, but the response at Stoneman Douglas High is showing that youth in this country can and should have a significant role in political debate. The students are fed up with our politicians and are using their voices to demand change.
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Now imagine if they could also vote and turned out in significant numbers. Would meaningful gun reform legislation be more likely to pass? Would our politicians actually be more responsive to the public will?
No one should have to witness the horrors that these students experienced. Our schools must be safe places for all. Out of necessity, the surviving students from Stoneman Douglas High are leading the path to that ideal. We should include them more directly in our democratic process.