Want to improve our democracy, increase voter turnout and send a strong message about the importance of voting? Vote yes on Proposition F and lower San Francisco’s voting age to 16.
The current voting age of 18 is largely a historical accident. The voting age under British common law at the time of the founding was 21. This was the age at which most young men could wear a heavy suit of armor. American colonies simply copied this prior to British rule.
The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age to 18. This change occurred because those aged 18 and older were being sent to fight in the Vietnam War and were engaged in political protests on college campuses. Once again, there was no sustained deliberation as to whether 18, or some other age, made the most sense.
Psychological studies and legal rules strongly support a voting age of 16. Psychologists agree that individuals gain the capacity for “cold cognition,” or measured decision-making, by age 16, and that 16 year olds are just as good as 40 year olds or 80 year olds at making the kind of reasoned judgments required of voting. By contrast, our brains are not fully developed for “hot cognition,” which involves impulse control and high emotion, until about age 25.
In short, nothing magical happens at age 18, but something magical does happen by age 16, at least for the kind of cognition required for voting: Our capacity for “cold cognition” becomes fully developed. Studies also show that young voters will not just follow their parents but will have an independent voice at the ballot box.
In addition, we already treat 16 year olds like “adults” in various ways, such as allowing them to obtain drivers’ licenses and work in part-time jobs. Yet we also expect them to follow the driving laws and pay taxes on their wages. It is only fair, then, that we allow young individuals who must follow these laws to have a say in them.
Lowering the voting age will be good for democracy. Cities in Maryland that have lowered the voting age have seen a marked increase in voter turnout. Voting is habit-forming: If someone votes once, they are more likely to vote in future elections. Sixteen year olds are more likely than 18 year olds to be involved in the political process, as they are invested in their local communities and part of a stable high school environment that includes civics education. At age 18, by contrast, we expect individuals to register to vote and often deal with absentee balloting rules at the same time they are moving away from home and entering the workforce or heading to college.
No wonder turnout among voters ages 18 to 24 is so abysmal: We make 18 year olds jump through hoops at the very time their lives are the most hectic. Lowering the voting age and encouraging democratic participation at age 16 can fix this problem.
States are often seen as “laboratories of democracy” that can try out novel social experiments. Yet on a smaller scale, cities like San Francisco can be what I have called “test tubes of democracy,” serving as trend-setters for the rest of the country. Supporting Prop. F and allowing voting rights at age 16 does not lessen the importance of voting or adulthood. It instead celebrates participation by everyone who has the proper capacity and who has a stake in our representative democracy.
Joshua A. Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law specializing in election law, focuses on the constitutional right to vote, election administration and post-election disputes.