Illustration by Macey Keung
In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age in the United States from 21 to 18. Since then, the debate over the legal voting age has continued. Some argue that teenagers younger than 18 aren’t mature or informed enough to vote, while others point out that developmentally speaking, there’s very little difference between a 19-year-old’s brain and a 17-year-old’s brain. Since a reported 74 percent of American adults can’t even name all three branches of government, you can hardly make the argument that adults are inherently more informed than teenagers when it comes to politics.
Fueled by this line of reasoning, movements to lower the voting age have gained traction. One such movement is Vote16, a national initiative that aims to give 16 and 17-year-olds the ability to vote in local elections. Berkeley’s Vote16 chapter began in 2015 and is one of fewer than 15 cities in America with Vote16 campaigns.
Berkeley is the first city in California to successfully pass the Vote16 initiative, and just one of three cities to do so nationwide. That’s all thanks to a group of students from Berkeley High School (BHS), who sat down to discuss issues they were passionate about, and how to enact change. They fixated upon teenagers’ lack of influence on decisions that affect them, like school board elections, and proposed a solution: an amendment to the city charter that would give 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds the right to vote for school board director, and would appear as a measure on the 2016 Berkeley ballot.
On November 8, 2016, their hard work paid off when Measure Y1 passed with over 70 percent of the vote. It is slated to go into effect in 2020, and soon we will certainly see its positive impact on Berkeley.
One effect that lowering the voting age could have in Berkeley is an improvement in civic education in our public schools. Civic education in high schools is often overlooked because it’s not directly relevant to high school-aged students, most of whom cannot vote. However, we can all agree that an understanding of our democracy is essential to being responsible, active citizens. If 16 and 17-year-old high schoolers are able to vote, that could create a push for more effective and comprehensive civic education in order to prepare those students, which will undoubtedly foster a generation that is more informed and engaged.
Lowering the voting age could also increase voter turnout. Studies have shown that voting is habitual, meaning that those who have consistently voted in every election cycle are more likely to continue voting throughout their lives, and in a country like the United States, where low voter turnout is a chronic issue, this is critically important. Voting is the foundation of any democracy, and a democracy whose citizens don’t vote cannot function. The younger we start voting, the more time and experience we will have with voting, making us more likely to establish a routine that will continue for the rest of our lives.
Arguably the most important impact of Vote16 on Berkeley is the message it will send to teenagers in our town. Too often, teenagers’ interests are ignored in politics, despite the fact that young people are often at the forefront of political and cultural change. Giving teens the right to vote validates their importance in the democratic process, and acknowledges the influence they have on the political stage. This is crucial since people who feel their voices matter, are more engaged citizens in the long run.