To vote or not to vote? Let’s look to N.J. for an answer

In January, the Newark [N.J.] City Council granted 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local school board elections. The council’s approval raised two important questions: should the minimum voting age in the U.S. be lowered, and in what contexts should teenagers be allowed to vote?

In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Many argued that if Americans were old enough to be sent to war, they were old enough to have a voice in government.

Since the Vietnam War, the effort to expand voting rights has increased. One 2018 House Joint Resolution proposed an amendment to the Constitution to extend voting rights to citizens 16 and older. While such an amendment has yet to pass, local authorities in a number of cities have taken steps to lower the voting age, including in Berkeley, Calif., which was the first city to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections.

These developments are warranted, given the vast majority of teenage students that are in support of a lowered voting age, according to data from The New York Times.

The biggest argument in favor of a lowered voting age is that students deserve a say in the issues that affect them. As in the the Newark council vote, school board elections may be the logical place to start.

School boards, especially in recent years, have set the climates of school districts, presiding over heated discussions on book bannings, correct pronoun usage in classrooms, and the like. Students are directly impacted by these boards, arguably more so than local parents and tax-payers — populations who currently elect school board trustees. Beyond providing the promise of fair representation — an American value born in the early days of our republic — allowing teenagers to vote in local school board elections also encourages civic participation. The decision gives young adults a tangible and concrete way of making their voices heard, thus enhancing the U.S. political system.

But should this right be extended beyond just local school board elections?

Many adults, and even some teens themselves, believe that young voters are too uneducated to choose a presidential candidate. The claim is that students would make uninformed decisions influenced by their peers, parents or social media, rather than choosing a candidate whose qualities are valuable to the country. Given that the teenage brain does not finish developing until the early-to-mid twenties, some point to teenage physiology to oppose expanding voting rights.

But it is unfair and short-sighted to limit voting to those 18 and above. Younger people are affected by elected representatives, even beyond school board members.

With Newark as a model, more cities across the nation should lower the voting age to 16 and Congress should follow suit with a constitutional amendment. Such expansions should in turn be strengthened with increased civic instruction in high school, as teenagers must have knowledge of elections and sufficient information to vote. Young people’s political engagement is surging and so is our country’s duty to amplify voices and strengthen our democratic system.

Art by Kate Johnson

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