In Takoma Park, starting the voting habit early

City becomes the first in America to lower the voting age to 16

June 02, 2013|By Timothy Male and Rob Richie

Last week, the Takoma Park City Council voted 6-1 to change its charter to become the first city in America to lower the voting age to 16.

While we are the first city to adopt this policy, we have little doubt that others will follow. Maryland already has been a national leader in extending voting rights to younger voters when it opened its primaries years ago to 17-year-olds. That practice has spread to more than 20 states, and the case for a lower voting age in local elections is similarly strong.

The context for action was an accompanying measure backing an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution and local actions in support of suffrage. A task force will address why — like many cities, including Baltimore — Takoma Park has local election turnout rates below 20 percent, with large disparities based on age and neighborhood. The city will also establish Election Day voter registration and extend voting rights to more people with past felony convictions, and may adopt Minnesota's policy of ensuring that candidates have access to apartment buildings to talk with residents.

One of the best reasons for a lower voting age relates to turnout. Most of our young people have lived here for a long time. Because studies show conclusively that both voting and not voting are habit-forming, providing a "first vote" opportunity for those more settled in their community is particularly important. The fact that those given a first chance to vote at 18 participate in higher rates than those unable to vote until 19 helps explain why studies show that Austria — one of several nations recently lowering the voting age to 16 — has experienced a significant turnout boost among for first-time voters.

International studies show that those under 18 cast votes reflecting their views just as well as older voters. In reality, age is an arbitrary factor on which to base limits on the rights and responsibilities associated with adulthood. Before they turn 18, Maryland teens can drive, work, pay taxes, have consensual sex, obtain a federal student loan, earn a pilot's license and join the military.

Final council passage came after months of public input. The testimony of so many young people was particularly persuasive: They have earned the right to be treated with the same respect as any other potential voter, and government will be accountable to more of our residents.

Our nation's history has been one of regular expansion of suffrage. Low participation in government and elections is a threat to democracy. Our cities are the best places to try innovations to address that challenge. We're proud to be a part of a city that has chosen to include more of our sons and daughters in the best part of democracy — making a choice together about our future on Election Day.

Timothy Male serves on the Takoma Park City Council. His email is timothymale@gmail.com. Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a Takoma Park-based electoral reform organization.

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