Turning 18 is an exciting time for a lot of American teenagers: Once turned the age of majority, one is suddenly allowed to buy tobacco, enlist in the armed services, gamble, and, come election time, head to the polls and vote. And yet, maybe 18 shouldn’t be the franchise gatekeeper that it is: Teenagers under 18 are stakeholders in a variety of local and national issues (education, transportation, and labor rights, to name a few), as the past two years have shown. After the election of Donald Trump, teenagers in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area walked out of school in November, and took to the streets to march. California high schoolers in Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego staged similar walkouts, among other forms of peaceful protest. Those under 18 were unable to participate in politics at the ballot box because of their age, but advocates for youth suffrage hope this won’t always be the case, and are working to lower the voting age to 16. In a country where the president waxes political to a crowd of teenage Boy Scouts, politics are visibly changing the lives of American teens—and youth-suffrage activists are looking to maximize the opportunity to revive their cause.
The law that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 is, in fact, relatively recent. Congress ratified the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, just 46 years ago, in July of 1971. The amendment passed swiftly following massive student-led demonstrations against the Vietnam War, when young people demanded to have more of say in the political process. Another youth-rights movement that rose up in the 1990s, in part fueled by listservs and other political corners of the Internet, has continued to evolve to the present day.
In just the last four years, three cities have lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16: Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, and Berkeley, California. In 2013, Takoma Park, a small town of 17,000 people equidistant to Annapolis and D.C., became the first city in the United States to lower the voting age. Hyattsville followed in 2015, and Berkeley passed its own youth voting measure this past election. FairVote, a non-profit organization that seeks to expand and protect voting rights, helped secure youth suffragists’ victory in Takoma Park, advising a city council member to lower the voting age when the council was looking for ways to get more people out to the polls. The argument for youth suffrage has been similar in other cities that have lowered the voting age: In Berkeley, the city council argued in support of the measure to lower the voting age to 16 so that Berkeley citizens would get in the habit of voting at a young age.