Now that the Iowa caucus is in the books and the presidential field is already starting to thin, election season is officially in full swing. The political discourse is alive with debate on many important issues, and several compelling storylines have emerged. We may see the first female president, or unprecedented victories by political outsiders over more traditional candidates. As this all unfolds, the issue I’m thinking most about is how young people factor into the election – not necessarily which candidates young voters prefer, but how young people participate in our elections and politics more broadly.
In the 2014 midterm elections, only 36 percent of eligible voters actually voted, and the turnout rate for young voters (ages 18-29) was just 20 percent. In the 2012 presidential election, those numbers were 62 and 45 percent, respectively. With so few people participating in elections, and especially so few young people, it is clear that we need bold ideas to spark participation in democracy. One of those ideas is lowering the voting age in local elections, one city at a time.
When Nancy Pelosi talked about her support for lowering the voting age she said it’s a good idea because “when kids are in school they’re so interested, they’re so engaged.” She’s exactly right. High school students are in the midst of civics classes in school and the majority volunteer in their communities. There is no better time to establish the habit of voting than age 16 in a local election, when a person is still in school and the issues are hand are extremely relevant to their daily life.
I’m thrilled to be working on GC’s new Vote16USA campaign, an initiative to support local efforts to lower the voting age and promote the issue on a national level. When I was 16, I cared deeply about issues in my school and community. I wrote articles about local politics for the school newspaper, and often talked with friends about what we wished was different about where we lived. Sure, there were many avenues for advocacy available to us, but none as direct or fundamental as voting. If I had been able to vote, I would have also paid even more attention to local issues, fostering a culture of civic engagement that is crucial for our democracy. I didn’t get the chance to vote when I was 16, and I’m committed to helping those younger than me gain that privilege.
As Vote16USA moves forward, the reasons for lowering the voting age continue to become stronger and clearer. The students on our Youth Advisory Board, and others involved in efforts around the country, show that young people do care about local issues and are more than ready to cast a ballot.
As election season continues to heat up, my focus remains on the role young people play in our democracy. The presidential campaigns that are underway, and state and local campaigns that will pick up in the spring, all rely on high school volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors. When I cast my ballot in November, there’s a good chance I’ll follow instructions issued by a 16-year-old, since high school students in every state serve as poll workers on election day.
Since we allow 16- and 17-year-olds to influence elections through joining campaigns, and to participate in democracy as poll workers, it only makes sense to let them vote as well. But right now, in most places they can’t, and this contributes to the low young voter turnout that plagues our democracy. Sixteen is a much better time to establish the habit of voting than 18, and once a person casts that first ballot they are likely to continue voting throughout their twenties and into adulthood.
Only 11 percent of voters ages 18-29 showed up for the Iowa caucus last week. Among the 89 percent who stayed home, there were certainly some who may have turned out had they established the habit of voting while still in school.
Lastly, while the presidential race dominates media coverage, the elections that affect us most on a daily basis are local races. Mayors, city councils, and school boards have tremendous influence, especially on young people. Every city has programs and initiatives to support its young people, and lowering the voting age can be the foundation for these efforts.
Energy for this cause is building around the country, and we’re ready to harness it into a cohesive movement. Follow along at Vote16USA.org.
Brandon Klugman is a senior at American University and the campaign coordinator for Generation Citizen’s Vote16USA initiative. Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.