This November, San Francisco residents will vote on a measure that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. If this measure gets enough community support to pass, the national effects would be historic. And long overdue.
My mom and I were sitting on the couch last summer, watching an episode of The West Wing centered around a group of teenagers asking the White House communications director about abolishing the federal voting age and letting kids vote. I was immediately hooked: at 3am I sent out a message to a team of young organizers that I knew telling them about this idea. Could kids give kids the right to vote?
The concept of voting has always captivated me, especially as a young bisexual woman from Alabama who wants a more diverse representative democracy. In my state, and across the country, I have watched politicians fail to capture the attention of young people, or represent our interests, and have been counting down the days until I get to vote since I was a pre-teen.
Giving young people the right to vote is the right thing to do, considering that this is a group that has consistently led every major political revolution. We have marched for civil rights, fought against the Vietnam war, stood up to gun violence and begged for a livable future. Greta Thunberg and the Parkland students have sparked international conversations and informed policymakers. This year, Generation Z will make up 24% of the workforce, and part of that includes 16- and 17-year-olds.
If we can independently drive a vehicle at 16, and enlist in the military at 17, then we can elect leaders whose decisions are already impacting our futures.
I believe young people are impacted by some of today’s biggest political issues more than our adult counterparts. A lot of the people making decisions on the climate crisis will not have to live with the dire effects of global warming. Adults in office don’t have to fear for their lives when they step into a school. They didn’t grow up with social media impacting their mental health.
With a lower voting age, we can take a global stand in not only the youth suffrage movement, but every other youth-led movement as well. Young people could then elect leaders who want us to have a livable future or be debt-free after college. We would be able to choose politicians who talk with us instead of just to us. And reforming the voting age would increase voter turnout: 18-year-olds are known for not having a great voter turnout record, but they make up what could potentially be a very large voting demographic in this country. If we give young people the right to vote starting at 16, that demographic gets even wider.
This all might sound radical, but we wouldn’t be the first country to embrace this idea: Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Austria all allow 16-year-olds to vote, among other countries. In Greece and Indonesia, you can vote when you’re 17. Increasingly, countries are debating the importance of lowering the voting age as the global population skews young.
Of course, there are adults who tell me that lowering the voting age to 16 wouldn’t work because 16-year-olds aren’t emotionally mature enough to engage in the political system. Here’s the thing: adults don’t have to prove that they are politically prepared enough to vote. We just guarantee them that right in our constitution because we consider them a valuable class of citizens. I know a lot of adults that don’t seem emotionally mature enough to vote, but that doesn’t matter. It is a civil right, and you can’t keep civil rights from young people just because you are scared of what we will do with them. Selective progress is not progress.
We have a big election coming up on 3 November in the United States and a lot of my generation will not have the right to cast a ballot. I am part of a mass mobilization of young people standing up for our rights. Young people work on campaigns, and take to the streets to draw attention to issues they cannot vote on. We are not asking for a pat on the back. We are asking for a vote.
In the episode of The West Wing I watched last summer, the White House communications director went from brushing off the kids asking for a vote to letting them have a voice in the conversation. That is where we need to be.