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The Fight for Suffrage Continues… With 17 Year-Olds

By Woojin ChoiPublished March 14, 2015

With governments in almost every democracy desperate to try to bring young people back into the civic fold, lowering the voting age might just be the answer.

We've all heard it one way or another: the higher the voter turnout, the healthier a democracy. And that is exactly what policymakers in Takoma Park, MD aimed at doing when they lowered the voting age to 17 in 2013; in a more extreme case, Scotland went one step further to lower it to 16 for its recent independence referendum. So can lowering the voting age really increase civic participation?

It sounds counterintuitive: young adults don't vote, so lower the voting age. However, it's not that the voting age isn't low enough but rather that it isn't the right one. At 18, many teenagers move away to college and find themselves in unfamiliar environments where they are absent of any family members who could influence proactive voting habits. On the other hand, 16 and 17 year-olds, who are still living at home, can see their parents voting and are more likely to be exposed to local issues and candidates. In addition, high school civics classes can be an excellent source of political knowledge and encouragement for civic engagement. A recent Yale University study found that students shown how to operate a voting machine were more than twice as likely to vote as students who weren't. This doesn't mean that students need to be shown how to operate a voting machine in order for them to vote, but it does reinforce the idea that high schools have the capacity to influence civic participation in one way or another.

Moreover, Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer has shown that voting, as well as nonvoting, is habitual. Once you vote, you are more likely to vote again while missing the first election as an eligible voter might result in a habit of non-participation. Political scientist Mark Franklin studied 22 democracies and found that lowering the voting age to 18 caused turnout to fall in most countries. These 18 year-olds had missed their first chance to vote, which meant that they weren't likely to vote again. This could be why voter turnout has declined since the 70's after the voting age was lowered to 18 by the 26th Amendment.

With governments in almost every democracy desperate to increase their voter turnout, lowering the voting age to 17 or 16 could the solution. A consequence of this might be the increased importance of high schools in promoting civic engagement, but at least now we know one potential way to begin the work of trying to bring young people back into the civic fold.

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