Columnists Aaron Nelson and Max Carr: Strengthening democracy for the next generation

Monday, August 14, 2017

Earlier this year the Town Meetings of Ashfield, Shelburne and Wendell petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for permission to lower their voting ages to 16, the first time that voters in Western Massachusetts have done so.

As the students and residents of Ashfield and Shelburne who presented the voting age petitions at our Town Meetings, we could not be prouder. Lowering the local voting age will help spur renewed attention to civic education in our schools, instill a habit of voting in our youth, and invigorate engagement with our local governments and communities. In this era of lackluster voter turnout, rising partisanship, and deteriorating civic education, efforts like this are especially important. That is why we are creating Vote16 Hilltowns, an organization that we hope will help other towns and cities in Western Massachusetts lower their local voting age.

When we first mention the idea of 16- and 17-year-olds voting, many people have questions and concerns. These, broadly, boil down to two issues: do 16-year-olds have the capacity to vote, and why should we want them to?

Both have clear answers. In the first case, researchers have found 16-year-olds to be just as capable of voting as 18-year-olds. Though parts of the brain are still developing at 16, Rutgers University researchers found that voting engages the brain’s “cold cognition” abilities, or the ability to think in low-pressure, deliberative situations. The researchers found that this capability, as well as overall civic knowledge, was similar between American 16- and 18-year-olds. Additional evidence from other countries, including Scotland, Austria and Germany, and U.S. cities that currently allow 16-year-olds to vote, demonstrates that 16-year-olds are as capable as 18-year-olds, and retain voting independence from their parents.

As for those who doubt that 16- and 17-year-olds want to vote, in their first election in Takoma Park, Maryland, with no contested races on the ballot, 40 percent voted; a better turnout than the 2014 U.S. midterm elections.

But the capacity to vote is not the only claim 16-year-olds have to municipal voting rights. At 16, they can also claim an undeniable interest in the issues of local government. At 16, they can drive on our local roads, work in our local businesses, and go to our local schools — and many pay income taxes. Yet despite these interests, they have no voice in any level of government.

Though it’s teens to whom we hope to give a voice in our local politics, it’s our democracy that will reap the benefits. Most importantly, by giving teens the right to vote, we can create lifelong voters, which is essential to our democracy’s long-term health. Research shows that voting in your first few elections is critical to establishing a lifelong habit of voting. Having teens cast their first votes before voting is complicated by their transition into college or the workforce can help form an enduring habit of voting.

Given that the 2014 midterms had the lowest turnout of any federal election since World War II, increasing the number of voters is crucial to maintaining a representative democracy. Lowering the voting age will not only help create more voters, it will also create more informed and engaged citizens. By engaging teens early, we hope to revitalize civics education and expose them to complex community issues and differing perspectives, giving them the tools and knowledge they need to make their voices heard. And this doesn’t begin to cover the benefits we hope to see in our communities, including a boost in volunteers for our local governments and community organizations.

Lowering the local voting age in our towns will not completely fix our electoral system; larger structural reform is undoubtedly needed. But we do think it is an important step in the right direction, and one that our communities in Western Massachusetts can model for those across the Commonwealth and country. Our hope is that many in Western MA feel as we do, and are ready to advocate in their communities as we did. We hope that you will join Vote16 Hilltowns, and that together we can work to strengthen our democracy for the next generation.

Aaron Nelson and Max Carr are co-founders of Vote16 Hilltowns, which can be reached at vote16hilltowns@gmail.com. More information is available at vote16hilltowns.org.