The real adults in the room are the youth from Parkland, Florida, who are speaking out about the need for meaningful gun control laws. They are proving that civic engagement among young people can make a difference. The ironic part? They can’t even vote yet. Several municipalities in the United States allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. Takoma Park, Maryland, was the first city to lower the voting age, thanks mostly to the advocacy efforts of youth themselves who convinced the city council that they should have a voice in local governance. Other cities in Maryland, like Hyattsville and Greenbelt, have followed suit. Larger cities are also debating the measure: In 2016, Berkeley, California, voters agreed to lower the voting age to 16 for school board elections, while a ballot proposition in San Francisco to lower the voting age for all city elections narrowly lost. Advocates are likely to try again in San Francisco in 2020.
One of the biggest predictors of whether someone will vote is if they voted previously. Yet turning 18 is a tough time to expect young people to start the habit of voting. They are usually leaving home for school or the workforce, and they must navigate the hurdles of registering and requesting an absentee ballot if they are not at home. By contrast, more youth are likely to vote if they start the habit earlier, when they are in the supportive environment of school and home, especially if we also improve civics education. They will then continue that habit later in life.
What does this have to do with Parkland, Florida, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting? In the aftermath, survivors of the tragedy have spoken out loudly against politicians’ refusal to pass meaningful gun control reform. They have quite literally kept the issue at the forefront of a nationwide debate, refusing to allow legislators to offer “thoughts and prayers” and nothing more. By engaging in respectful and forceful advocacy, these youth are proving how important it is to include young people’s voices in political debate.