Engage Them When They’re Young: Lowering the Virginia Voting Age To 16

In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, lowered the voting age to 16. In 2015, Hyattsville, Maryland, lowered theirs, and this year Greenbelt and Riverdale Park, Maryland did the same. There have been movements across the country to lower the voting age that have seen varying levels of success. So what is the justification for lowering the voting age, and is it a policy worth pursuing?

Youth are expected to follow the law but have no say in making it. Teenagers can be tried as adults and sent to adult prisons. Youth are also most affected by education policy, corporal punishment, and poverty, and issues that affect their future, such as environmental degradation, long-term government debt, and social security.

Youth also have adult responsibilities. As of 2016, 226,000 16-17-year-olds in the US were employed; in other words, they can pay taxes but have no representation. Many teens are the primary caregivers for ailing family members, and some teens even run businesses.

Many young people are involved with politics -- they express opinions, volunteer for campaigns, form political groups, and organize protests. Some young people have even successfully run for public office. And, when given the right to vote, they turn out. When Takoma Park, Maryland lowered its voting age to 16, voters under 18 had a turnout rate four times higher than voters over 18.

There is an argument that youth lack the knowledge, maturity and experience needed to vote. But there is no requirement that adults have political knowledge to vote: knowledge and literacy tests were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All adults have the right to vote unless taken away in a court of law, regardless of cognitive ability or political knowledge. Furthermore, youth are enrolled in school, taking classes in history, government and economics, which can lead to 16-and-17-year-olds knowing more about government and politics than many adults. And a majority of adults lack basic political knowledge, such as being able to name the three branches of government or which parties have majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In this year's General Assembly, Virginia Delegate Sam Rasoul introduced House Joint Resolution No. 33 to the General Assembly. It is a constitutional amendment which would allow towns and counties to lower their voting ages to 16. The bill did not make it out of committee, but Delegate Rasoul is planning on reintroducing it next year. Since there is now a national conversation about lowering the voting age, it has a much better chance of passing.

The reintroduction of HJ33 put Virginia on even ground with Maryland, where localities can lower their voting ages to 16 and are doing so. Since the passage of the bill would generate a statewide conversation about a lower voting age, we can expect to see many towns and counties lowering their voting age soon after it is passed. That could set the stage for another amendment, to lower the voting age for statewide elections and all local elections.

The new bill will first have to pass the Privileges and Elections Committee, then the House of Delegates, then the Senate, and then both houses next year, after which it will be voted on in a referendum. Even though the passage of this bill will not be easy, it will be worth it to empower teenagers and make Virginia more democratic.

Many people forget what it’s like to be a teenager. We all had political beliefs when we were 16, and even though they may be different from what we believe now, they are just as valid and should be part of the democratic process. As we’ve seen across Maryland, lowering the voting age gives a voice to teenagers and is beneficial to society as a whole.

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