Following World War II and on the verge of American involvement in Vietnam, many Americans pushed for the voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18, stating that if you are “old enough to fight, [you are] old enough to vote”. In March of 1971, Congress ratified the 26th Amendment to the Constitution—the right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age. Since the passage of the 26th Amendment, voter turnout amongst 18-year-olds has experienced both ups and downs, with voter turnout of 18-to-24-year-olds being the second highest in the 2008 presidential election.
In recent history, there has been a push to lower the voting age to 16, not only in America, but across the globe as well. Austria successfully lowered the voting age in 2007 and has seen positive effects since, and other developed nations such as Great Britain, Norway, and Scotland are currently pushing towards lowering the age as well. As other nations are currently debating about the voting age, American cities such as Takoma Park have already lowered the voting age to 16 in local elections, with hopes that the rest of the nation will follow suit.
In this essay, I will argue why the voting age should be lowered to 16 in the United States. There has been no conclusive research to prove that 16-year-olds are less cognitively capable of making voting decisions than those older than them and are too immature to vote responsibly. Those against lowering the voting age also argue that many 16-year-olds are apathetic towards politics—a sphere that does not allow their voice to be heard. Although not conducted in the United States, evidence shown from the Scottish Referendum vote in 2014 reveals that when given the opportunity to vote, many teenagers become more politically engaged through not only voting, but discussions with parents and in classroom settings as well. This paper suggests that 16-year-olds are just as capable to make well-balanced voting decisions as are older voters.
When arguing about the voting age, it is important to define certain terms. In this case, citizenship, not in a legal sense, can be defined by rights, participation, and community. For a person to be a citizen, they must have rights that are protected (such as the guarantee of equal protection under the law of the Fourteenth Amendment), and they must be actively engaged in their community. Whether it is through having a job and paying taxes or being involved in civic service, many 16-year-olds already have or can acquire the rudimentary principles of citizenship.
Additionally, the term ‘political maturity’, needs to be broken down, as many against lowering the voting age claim that 16-year-olds are not ‘politically mature’ enough to vote effectively. Chan and Clayton (2006) break down ‘political maturity’ into two components: ability and willingness. Ability is seen as “knowledge of the political system [and] issues” and the “possession of political convictions that are consistent…and are not subject to whimsical revision”. Willingness can be defined as a certain level of interest in the politics and current affairs. Critics of lowering the voting age argue that adolescents under the age of 18 are not willing and do not have the ability to effectively vote, and therefore should be denied the right to. However, if 16-year-olds are denied the right to vote purely based on their level of ‘political maturity’, is it right to have an age proxy for the right to vote, or rather should nations adopt a merit-based system based on (I) political knowledge and (II) efforts to go out and vote? However, if America were to do this, it would be reverting to a system similar to that of the 20th century and prior. If we deny the rights to 16-year-olds simply because they are not ‘politically mature’ enough, why do we grant the right to vote to thousands of adults who are not politically engaged either?
The main argument that critics such as Clayton and Chan have against lowering the voting age is that 16-year-olds are not knowledgeable enough about politics to vote without being influenced by preferences or outside opinions. To support their argument, Chan and Clayton took data from the 1997 British Election Studies (BES) and the 1998 British Social Attitudes Survey (YBSA); however, the BES sample only included those 18 and older, while the YBSA sampled those aged 12-19. The questions on the YBSA were similar to those of the BES, with three of them being identical and from the data gathered, Chan and Clayton argued that the proportion to which respondents correctly answered questions increases with age. The point of issue with their conclusion comes from the different sources of data, as the two samples were (I) not given the same test and (II) were of different ages. To be able to come to accurate conclusions about the surveys, it is important to look at the results of 18-and-19-year-olds, and the data shows that the YBSA survey has significantly lower correct responses than the BES. Because of the differences between the BES and YBSA, whether it be because of the sampling or the responses, the argument that 16-year-olds are not as knowledgeable enough about politics compared to adults is invalid if only looking at this data.
If we were to compare the political knowledge that adolescents have to adults, we can use both the adult and youth samples of the 1996 National Household Educational Survey (NHES). In the adult sample, random-sampling was done and had a total of 2,250 participants. In the youth sample, households with one adolescent were telephoned to be participants, with 4,217 participating ranging from ages 14 to 18. The NHES tested both samples civic knowledge, tolerance, political skill, political efficacy, political interest, and volunteering; however, the results from the civic knowledge questions are the ones serving the purpose in this argument. In both samples, a set of five identical questions about civic knowledge were used, with the questions ranging slightly in difficulty. The results from this survey show that political knowledge increase greatly from ages 14 to 16 and little afterwards, with 18-year-olds only having slightly more political knowledge than 16-year-olds. It is shown that 16-year-olds know nearly the same about American politics as young adults, with their mean average being higher than some of those who are enfranchised. This disproves the argument that adolescents are not politically knowledgeable enough to vote.
The other main argument against lowering the voting age is that adolescents appear to be apathetic towards politics. One could argue this to be true in the past; however, the youth in America have had a history of rallying around causes that affect them. In the 1960s and 1970s, American teenagers and young adults protested the war in Vietnam and the Nixon administration’s involvement and eventually helped lower the voting age to 18. Currently, a new wave of teenagers are emerging as political leaders following several school shootings such as the one in Parkland, Florida. There will always be people who are apathetic towards politics—adults and adolescents alike—however, as citizens of the nation who have proven to have nearly the same knowledge as many adults, denying 16-year-olds the right to vote based on an “overall sense” of political apathy is morally wrong. The claim that 16-year-olds are apathetic towards politics and therefore should not be given the right to vote can be argued using three different case studies in Austria, Scotland, and the United States.
In 2007, the Austrian parliament passed a voting reform act to allow 16-year-olds the right to vote in national elections. In addition to the voting reform, Austria has made changes in school curriculum to incorporate more civics-based lessons to “enhance learning about and engagement with the political process”. Since 2008, young people across Austria have cast ballots in multiple elections, ranging from national parliament, European Parliament, and presidential. Austria is one of the only nations in the world to have a voting age at 16, so it’s election results give the most accurate empirical data on the turnout of the youth.
Wagner, Johann, and Kritzinger investigated political interest, democratic trust, and intention to vote in the European Parliament election through a sample survey of those aged 16 and above, with the turnout intention as the dependent variable. In an overall result, roughly 54% of respondents said they intended to vote in the upcoming election. Additionally, those under the age of 18, while their turnout was lower than the general Austrian population, had the second-highest average interest in politics. There is no conclusive evidence to show that citizens under the age of 18 in Austria are unable or unwilling to vote and that there is no negative impact by allowing them to vote.
In 2014, Scotland opened voting on the independence referendum to 16-and-17-year-olds. Before the election, two surveys conducted by the ‘Future of the UK and Scotland’ surveyed 14-17 year-olds living in Scotland regarding the upcoming vote (14-year-olds were contacted as they would be 16 by the time of the vote on the referendum). Sampling was done via telephone, and surveyors asked the child’s legal guardian for an over-the-phone interview. The children, as well as the parents, were asked about their education level and their voting intention. The surveys given were to measure the youth’s political interest and their likelihood to vote through engaging in either classroom discussions, conversations with parents, or both. The overall results show that there is no evidence to suggest that 14-17 year-olds care any less about politics than adults (Table 1). Additionally, evidence from the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey indicate that many children had had either classroom discussions or ones with parents about the upcoming election, with an increase of over 10% in both categories from 2013 to 2014, the year of the election.
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