What’s your knee-jerk reaction to the question: Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote in municipal, state or even federal elections? Is it equivalent to the derisive “HA-ha” from The Simpsons’ Nelson Muntz? Aren’t freckle-faced Beliebers and Swifties more focused on new apps and random hashtags than political candidates and ballot issues? Even when the state’s New Motor Voter Act eventually kicks in, millennials wouldn’t look up from their smart phones long enough to realize signing up for a driver’s license automatically registers them to vote, right? That’s the conventional thinking.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez disagrees. She’s pushing to allow state 16- and 17-year-olds to vote—but only in selected local races. The idea isn’t exactly new, but it is part of an active and ongoing campaign by Gonzalez to lower voting barriers and encourage more people to get to the polls.
Changing California’s voting age would require a Constitutional amendment that would have to pass a two-thirds vote in both the state Assembly and Senate. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 7 isn’t ready yet for legislative consideration, but— shoot—why not make it part of the conversation during the three-ring circus that is our presidential election run-up?
ACA 7 (Vote@16) proposes to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local school board and community college district governing board elections. Gonzalez says those races directly affect the teen demographic. And she says science shows that there’s little difference between the cognitive abilities of 16- and 18-year-olds. While 18 year-olds are often in transitory times in life, 16-year-olds are usually in more stable environments and are likely studying civics in high school. Another upside: Voting is a habit, and habits are more likely to stick the earlier in life they’re started.
While most states prohibit people younger than 18 from serving on juries, marrying without parental consent and from being eligible for the death penalty, the under-18 demographic does drive, work and some pay taxes—without representation.
For centuries, the voting age in most states was 21. During the Vietnam War, consensus developed that if you were old enough for the draft, you were old enough to vote. In 1971 the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
Middle teens have been eligible to vote in other countries for years, including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Indonesia, and recently, Scotland.
Two Maryland municipalities, Tacoma Park and Hyattsville, have lowered the voting age for city elections to 16. San Francisco is considering it; legislators in Colorado and New Mexico are looking at limited voting proposals similar to California’s ACA 7.
In a false start, a push surfaced in California in 2004 to allow teens to vote, albeit at fractional values. State senators proposed that 16- and 17- year-olds would get a half vote and 14- and 15-year-olds would get a quarter vote. Partly due to the cringe-worthy memory of counting slaves in America as three-fifths of a person, that idea didn’t fly.
Gonzalez admits that ACA 7 isn’t 100 percent fleshed out. For one thing, giving limited vote to kiddos would come at a cost of producing separate ballots. But the country’s pathetic voter turnout—especially in primaries—is worth the price of some sort of repair and/or maintenance. It’s a stretch to imagine an Election Day scenario where a mom is threatening her wonky kids that they can’t vote until they clean their rooms and finish their homework. But I’m inclined to consider including junior voters, especially if it would create lifelong voting-day responsibility.
If your gut response to giving 16-year-olds the vote was the Muntz laugh, consider this: Which Simpson would you rely on to not vote for Donald Trump for president—Lisa or Homer? D’oh!