It is time to try lowering the voting age to 17 nationwide. Takoma Park, Maryland, has done it. Iowa, too, for caucuses. Scotland went down to age 16 for its recent independence referendum. Evidence suggests it will boost informed participation in our democracy over time. … The political scientist Mark Franklin studied 22 democracies and found a pattern: Lowering the voting age to 18 actually caused turnout to fall in most countries. Why? Because 18-year-olds are less likely to vote than 21-year-olds. And once those 18-year-olds missed their first year as eligible voters, they were less likely to vote again — not even when they reached 21. Franklin argued that, in the United States, changing our voting age to 18 may be the sole reason voter turnout has declined since the 1970s. But 17 may be a better age. At 17, most people are still living at home, where they can see parents voting and probably hear about local issues and candidates. They also are still in school, where voting can be encouraged and become a social norm.
Indeed, Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell finds that people in their 30s still have a higher turnout rate if they attended high schools where a majority of students believed that they should vote. That means that civic engagement of high school students has long-term implications for our democracy.
But what about the argument that teenagers just don’t know enough to vote? We might reasonably worry that Americans of all ages are not adequately informed. But Rutgers-Camden professors Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins found that 16-year-olds’ political knowledge was about the same as that of 21-year-olds. And one unique advantage of high school students is that we can improve their knowledge of the Constitution, the political system and current issues before an election. We can teach those topics in school — as most states still require. A local election can be an excellent “teachable moment” in a high school civics class.