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Should the US let 16- and 17-year-olds vote?

Scotland allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in a referendum over whether to break away from the United Kingdom. But outside Takoma Park, Md., there's no movement in the US to extend the franchise to voters under 18.

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    Young voters leave a polling station in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 18, 2014. Scotland's referendum marked the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK have been allowed to vote.
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Although it didn’t get much attention that I noticed here in the United States, the fact is that, for what I believe is the first time in British history, people under the age of 18 were permitted to vote on the independence referendum:

Scotland’s referendum on whether to break away from Britain is making history in more than one way: It has been the first time 16- and 17-year-olds in the U.K. have been able to cast a ballot.

Scotland lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 for the referendum. Though the new teenage voters are a relatively small part of the voting population, the move has given them rare political power.

When the change in voting age was announced, it was seen as a likely boost for independence, given the conventional view that younger voters tend to have less affinity for the status quo. But polls suggested that might not be the case.

Election officials say that more than 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds are registered to vote, out of 4.29 million total voters.

Pollsters say it has been difficult to accurately gauge teenagers’ voting intentions in their normal polling because relatively few of them were surveyed. A Thursday poll of more than 3,000 voters published by YouGov showed the youngest cohort was evenly split between voting for and against independence. The sample of voters, though, ranged from 16-year-olds to those aged 24.

A survey of more than 1,000 teenagers published by University of Edinburgh researchers in June found that those under 18 favored maintaining the union by 52% to 30%.

Yet like many other polls, the researchers also found a big portion of those interviewed hadn’t made up their minds. Walking alongside Mr. McMillan and dressed in the same uniform, Paul Feeney, 17, said he was unsure until the last minute, then decided “yes.”

“I tried to stay undecided for a while, and then just today sort of decided on it. So quite nervous for it, but excited,” he said.

Since there was no exit polling conducted in connection with the referendum, it’s unclear how many of the teenagers who were eligible and registered to vote actually participated. However, given the massively high turnout that the vote generated and the attention that the vote was getting in the media in the United Kingdom in general and Scotland in particular, it’s quite probable that the turnout among this voting cohort was roughly comparable to the population as a whole. Despite the lack of exit polling, though, and based in large part on the polling noted above, there has been some speculation that these teenagers may very well have played a significant role in helping the referendum fail, although the margin of victory that ‘No’ had on Thursday makes it obvious that there was more than just teenagers involved in saving the U.K. For the most part, though, it appears as though the decision to open up the vote to teenagers was successful in that it increased the number of voices taking part in the election and seemed to do a pretty good job of raising civic awareness among an age group that usually doesn’t pay close attention to such issues. The more interesting thing about the experiment, of course, was the fact that these young Scottish voters were just as divided as the issue of independence as the rest of Scotland. Quite obviously, then-First Minister Alex Salmond hoped that opening up the vote to teenagers would benefit the independence side of the debate, but if anything it appears that these voters may have been more favorable to the union, albeit by roughly the same margin as the rest of the country.

As it turns out, the idea of letting people under 18 vote isn’t entirely new. As Bloomberg’s Francis Berry notes, 16- and 17-year-olds are already permitted to vote in national elections in nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, the British islands of Gurensey, Isle of Man, and Jersey, and, as of 2007, Austria. Here in the United States, the city of Takoma Park in Maryland passed a law last year allowing teenagers to vote in municipal elections, and there is some talk of the same thing happening in other American cities. At least, in Austria, there appears to be some evidence that the extension of the franchise to teenagers has been successful in that turnout among this age group has actually been higher than among 18- to 21-year-olds. There are similar results in Denmark, where 16- and 17-year-olds are permitted to vote in local elections. The interesting question, of course, will be whether these newly enfranchised Austrian teenagers will carry that voting behavior into their late teens and early 20s, which seems to be an age group that tends to stay home on Election Day, regardless of which country you live in.

Scotland’s decision to let teenagers vote in the referendum, though, has perhaps inevitably led to a discussion about whether full voting rights should be extended to teenagers, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Georgetown University Professor Jason Brennan, for example, argues that the success of the Scottish referendum is strong reason for the US to consider extending the franchise to younger voters:

Many here might be skeptical about the idea of the United States following Scotland’s lead in lowering the voting age. The trouble is that the main reason most people cite for barring 16- and 17-year-olds from voting looks like an equally good reason to stop most American adults from voting, too.

The key argument against letting high school juniors vote is simple: Their choice would affect all of us. After all, a voter chooses for everyone, not just him or herself. Many worry that most 16-year-olds lack the wisdom or knowledge to cast smart votes, so we don’t let them vote because we want to protect ourselves from their decisions.

And this concern is often grounded in reality – young adults are indeed in many cases profoundly ignorant about politics. But if that is a reason for excluding them from voting, it is surely a reason to exclude almost everyone else.

Every two years, for 60 years, the American National Election Studies has surveyed what prospective voters know and don’t know. And the results are always depressing – the top quartile of voters are like B students, tending to get about 85% of questions right. The next two quartiles do little better or worse than chance. But the lowest quartile are systematically misinformed. Indeed, if you ask them which party, Republicans or Democrats, is more conservative, most of them even get that answer wrong.

[…]

So, this is the catch: If you wanted to exclude 16- and 17-year-olds on the grounds that they are more likely to be ignorant or misinformed, you would also in effect be arguing against other demographics having a say.

Professor Brennan argues that, perhaps, the solution to the “knowledge problem” would be to allow 16- or 17-year-olds to vote if they are able to pass the citizenship test given to immigrants seeking to become citizens. Since that is a test that would seem to be free from the objections regarding discrimination that have plagued voter tests in the past, perhaps that would be something that could work. However, as Ilya Somin noted when he wrote about this issue many years ago, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to create the incentives for local voting authorities that would lead them to create fair and neutral voter tests that wouldn’t be motivated by the desire to suppress voters who might vote for one party or the other, or minorities. That being said, assuming such a test can be created and fairly implemented, I have to agree with Somin that there doesn’t seem to be any reason why a teenager who is objectively more knowledgeable about government and politics than many adults should not be permitted to vote in elections that, without question, are going to have a profound impact on their future. Indeed, if it results in greater voter participation, as has apparently been recorded in Austria and Denmark, then it would be a good thing for the country overall.

Outside of the actions in Takoma Park, there is no real national movement in the United States to extend the franchise to anyone under 18. This is a stark contrast to the movement that led to the ratification of the 26th Amendment in less than three months in 1971, when the arguments about extending the franchise to 18- to 21-year-olds was rooted in no small part in the fact that these men were being drafted to fight in Vietnam but were not allowed to vote. There really aren’t any similar arguments regarding the urgency of extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, most of whom remain in school and under their parents care and supervision. While it’s true that this potential voting cohort will be profoundly impacted by the decisions made by politicians elected before they are eligible to vote, there does’t seem to be the same sense of urgency. Indeed, beyond the knowledge issue dealt with above, the fact that these potential voters don’t really have anything other than an abstract stake in society at this point in their lives is another argument against extending the franchise to them. That being said, the seemingly successful experiences of nations like Austria and Denmark, along with the decision to extend the franchise in Scotland for the limited purpose of the independence referendum, argues that it is at least an idea that ought to be considered, even if we don’t rush headlong into signing up high school seniors and juniors to vote.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/

[Editor's note: Takoma Park was misspelled in sub-headline of the original version.]

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