Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote?

A proposal in Brattleboro, Vt., would allow citizens as young as 16 to cast ballots in local elections. 

Steve Jessmore/The Sun News/AP/File
A North Myrtle Beach Primary school student casts her vote in a mock presidential election on Nov. 5, 2012, in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Voters in Brattleboro, Vt., will be asked this week to lower the voting age for local elections to 16, a move that some say could place the town on the cutting edge in a world where teenage political maturity may be vastly increasing thanks to online social interaction.

In Brattleboro on Tuesday the Selectboard will ask voters to decide on a ballot item that would let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections, according to The Associated Press. 

Vermont’s current voting age of 18 wouldn’t alter for state and federal elections. The proposal by Brattleboro resident Kurt Daims would lower the minimum age by two years for town elections. The Selectboard's chair said last October that such an amendment to the Town Charter would ultimately require approval of the Vermont legislature.

Meanwhile, a group of preteens are working hard to get Georgia voters to lower the age of those seeking office from 21 to 18, and the website Debate.org is hosting a lively one on lowering the voting age to 16 nationally.

The Young Georgians in Government Act of 2015 would reduce the age at which a citizen could run for public office from 21 to 18.

CJ Pearson, age 12, is the executive director of Young Georgians in Government (YGG), a darling of conservative media, and listed as a "public figure" on his Facebook page.

“Here at YGG, we encourage young people of all political backgrounds to become involved in our government, support young candidates who decide to run for office, and also fight for solutions to the issues facing young people across the entire state of Georgia,” a statement on the YGG website reads. “Our organization will lead voter registration drives, write legislation, and recruit young candidates to seek office to ensure young people have a voice in our government.”

A study in Austria examined the differences in political interest of 16- and 17-year-old Austrians before and after the country lowered the voting age to 16 in 2008. Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Youth Studies, “Political interest of adolescents before and after lowering the voting age: the case of Austria” suggests that with enfranchisement comes increased interest in politics.

“Young people are said to be uninterested in politics. This lack of political interest among adolescents has been used as an argument against lowering the voting age. But why should someone be interested in politics if he or she is not eligible to vote,” the study asked. “We observe that political interest of 16- and 17-year-olds was higher after lowering the voting age… In the specific societal and situational context of Austria, the development of political interest among young people seems to be associated with the ‘life event’ of enfranchisement.”

Of course, interest is not the same thing as maturity. An earlier study performed in the US titled, “Should the Voting Age be Lowered to Sixteen? Normative and Empirical Considerations,” by Tak Wing Chan and Matthew Clayton, rejected the proposal to lower voting rights to age 16.

“The key issue, we claim, is the political maturity of young people,” the study by Mr. Chan and Mr. Clayton states. “Drawing on empirical data collected in nationally representative surveys, we argue that the weight of such evidence suggests that young people are, to a significant degree, politically less mature than older people, and that the voting age should not be lowered to sixteen.”

But teens' apparent lack of political maturity could change, thanks to technology. Norfolk State University biologist Arthur Bowman studies neuroplasticity, that is, the capacity of the brain to reorganize its neural connections over time. Dr. Bowman, who is the former president of the Virginia Children’s Engineering Council, says he thinks that the internet and cloud-based information access has changed the landscape making much of the research inapplicable to today’s tech-savvy, connected youth.

“Older research on neural connections and maturity needs to be looked at again in light of today’s social communication, and the fact that our youth are so much more plugged in than their older counterparts has really shifted the dynamics of this kind of debate about intellectual maturity,” Bowman says. “Social communities online are driving youth to learn more and know more about the real world. This forms new neural connections and may promote dendrite growth we don’t see in those who are less socially engaged.”

Conversely, a Change.org petition, “Impose a mandatory maximum voting age of 55,” failed spectacularly to gain traction – gaining just 17 of the 1,000 votes needed to become viable via the site’s requirements, and was closed.

Asked if he believes there should be a maximum voting age established, Bowman laughed, saying, “I’m sure not going to say that. However, it would be the corollary question to be asking given that so many older voters are disconnected socially, politically and don’t take advantage of the social media and online political discussions that are currently affecting the world in the same way younger people do today.”

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