The heated fall election of 2020 was the best of times and the worst of times for Gauri Nair, a sophomore at Philadelphia’s Central High School who turns 16 later this year and is a student activist with PA Youth Vote, a registration effort that targets teen voters, and beyond.
As the fraught contest between then-president Donald Trump and the future President Biden went down to the wire, Nair and her friends signed up hundreds of new voters in their classes at Central, or by sending messages on Instagram, and by setting up a table on weekends at a busy Shoprite supermarket. But she and her friends remain frustrated over the highly engaged would-be voters they couldn’t sign up: Themselves.
“As much as we were empowering other people to have their voices be heard through voting, it was very discouraging that I could not vote,” Nair — who like many local teens is passionate about issues like education funding and the racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder — told me this week. “I care just as much about all these issues as all these people that we registered to vote, but I can’t go into a polling place.”
In an era when so many heated political and social issues are on the front burner, high school students like Nair — aided by the ability to connect in nanoseconds on sites like Instagram or TikTok — are more engaged in elections and civic activism than any time since the 1960s, or possibly ever. The record levels of youth engagement have pumped new life into a debate over whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be given the right to vote — a power they currently have in just a handful of municipal or school board elections across the United States.
The proponents of increased teen voting are now backed up by numerous studies suggesting that not only do high school students have the brainpower to add something positive to the electorate but that 16- and 17-years-olds are actually more likely to vote than their more distracted college-age peers. So lowering the voting age to 16 ought to be a no-brainer, right?
Nothing is that simple — not in America in 2021. At a moment when many point to misinformation in the 2020 election — culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill — as a sign to pump up high school civics education that’s declined over a number of decades, a number of Republican officials are looking in the other direction. In Texas, GOP lawmakers just passed a bill that would ban schools from awarding course credit for civic engagement outside the classroom — a sign of how much the GOP worries that youth activism promotes liberal causes.
Tom Quinn, the Central High School social studies teacher who’s become a high-profile advocate for civic engagement as director of education for PA Youth Vote, told me the Texas move and other GOP curbs on school civic engagement are “reactionary,” explaining: “I don’t believe any teacher should promote their own political ideology or party or candidates, but students do need the tools to function in adulthood and part of that is engaging with the government — especially for kids from marginalized communities.”
Young Americans have long been involved in protest and politics — most famously, when youth marches were a turning point in the fight for racial integration in Birmingham in 1963 — but the last decade has seen a sharp uptick in teen passion for bigger issues they see affecting them or their future, such as climate change or gun violence. Despite the 18-year-old requirement for federal and all but a handful of local elections, younger voters are finding other ways to sway political contests. In Massachusetts, the New York Times recently profiled what locals there call “the Markeyverse,” an online army of 16-year-olds credited with turning a contentious 2020 primary in favor of Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, largely over climate action.
Not surprisingly, a lot of teens find the conflict between their newfound activism, whether online or in the streets, and their lack of voting power as a source of youthful frustration.
“There is a whole universe of issues that I want to influence with my vote, and one that really sticks out — being a young Black woman — is racism in America, and racial justice,” Rebecca Allen, a 16-year-old classmate of Nair at Central and also a student leader with PA Youth Vote, told me. Allen said she sees systemic racism tied to a number of issues, including lack of school funding for Philadelphia, which she protested in a march with other students and educators earlier this month. But she can’t yet vote for candidates who agree with her.
Key arguments in favor of lowering the voting age to 16 are a) that high school is a time of relative stability for teens, when most live at home with their families and aren’t facing the upheavals of starting college or a job and b) voting works hand-in-hand with classroom school civics education, which advocates are also calling for.
Joshua A. Douglas, the University of Kentucky law professor who writes extensively on voting rights, steered me to research showing that — in the handful of places like Takoma Park, Md., that have lowered the age to 16 for local elections — 16- and 17-year-olds actually turn out at a higher rate than their more distracted older peers in the 18-29 bracket. What’s more, teens who cast that first ballot are more likely to stick with the voting habit through young adulthood.
“Being 16 is a more stable time — we know where these young people are, and we can get them registered,” Douglas said, adding that there’s “nothing magical” about the current 18-year-old standard — enacted in time for the 1972 presidential election after complaints that young people getting drafted to fight in Vietnam had no voting rights. He said Scotland lowered its voting age to 16 for its 2014 referendum on independence, and after a positive experience reduced the age limit for all elections since then.
Here in the United States, there are a variety of arguments against lowering the age. Kate Silbaugh, a Boston University law professor, has argued that a 16-year-old voting standard could complicate efforts to protect teens in the criminal-justice and child-welfare arenas. But the biggest obstacle right now seems to be political, and some of it seems wrapped up in Republican fears that youth voting is a pathway to “woke” liberalism or socialism.
The just-passed Texas legislation is just one piece of a broader bill aimed at preventing teachers from using the 1619 Project — a curriculum that rethinks America’s relationship with democracy through the prism of slavery — and even restricts how the history of slavery can be discussed. GOP officials in a number of states have also closed campus polling places or placed onerous ID restrictions that betray a wider hostility to youth voting.
But opposition to a lower voting age extends beyond Republicans. When Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley proposed in March to lower the federal voting age to 16, the idea only garnered 125 Democratic votes in the House and zero Republicans. And that rejection also reflected a majority of Americans who tell pollsters they oppose lowering the age limit. Apparently the grown-ups who brought you climate change and four years of Trump don’t want to dilute their ballot-box wisdom.
I hope that a majority of Americans will reconsider — especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the vast disinformation campaign that led up to it. The sight of violent lunatics trying to block the certification of a free and fair presidential election was also a reminder that saving democracy will require a major expansion of civic education in our schools, which has withered in the last 40 years with a focus on STEM and on rote-memory testing.
Philadelphia’s Quinn and others who work with young people know the best way to show them how politics is connected to improving their own communities is to let them harness the greatest power of all in a true democracy: The ballot box.
Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz, graduating from Princeton High School and bound for Rutgers, a member of the Vote16 USA advisory board, told me one of the hardest things about registering voters in 2020 was telling some they were too young to sign up. “It was really hard,” she said, “because we knew it was a monumental election about a defining vision for our country.”
It’s time to start saying “yes” to America’s young people, and enlist them in our great democratic experiment when they’re fired up and ready to go. I fear that if we push this generation away, the next insurrection will make Jan. 6 seem like child’s play.
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