In November 2013, voters in Takoma Park, Md., made history. The city became the first place in the United States to grant 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections. Since then at least one other community — neighboring Hyattsville, another suburb of Washington, D.C. — has followed that example. Activists have been campaigning for that right in communities across the country, from Memphis to Fresno, Calif. Fifteen states now allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries for elections that will be held after they turn 18. There are two good reasons to reduce the voting age. First, it is likely to help young people establish the habit of voting lifelong. Second, as my recently published research shows, it makes their parents more likely to vote as well.
Younger voters could use more years in which to develop the habit of voting. And parents could use the impetus to set a good example. Why? Advocates argue that lowering the turnout age will boost political participation, both immediately and lifelong. Research shows that turnout is habitual: Those who come of voting age just before an election are more likely to vote in subsequent elections. In the years just after becoming voters, however, young voters’ turnout drops precipitously for several years; and young people who move out of their parents’ homes are also often likely to stop voting for several years. In other words, if more young people started the habit of voting while 16 or 17 and still living at home, they might be more likely to establish a habit of voting lifelong.
But there’s another reason to reduce the voting age, according to my recent research: When young people vote, their parents are more likely to vote, too. Examining detailed, administrative data from Denmark, I found a “trickle up” effect, in which parents vote because of their children — both to set the example and to keep up with their civic habits.