Lowering the Voting Age

FairVote supports expanding suffrage to 16 and 17 year olds in municipal elections.  All evidence suggests that cities will increase voter turnout by allowing citizens to cast their first vote after turning 16. The reason is simple. Many people at 16 and 17 have lived in their communities for years and are taking government classes in high school. That combination results in more people exercising their first chance to vote if they are 16 or 17 than if they are unable to vote until they have left home and school.

FairVote played a vital role in Takoma Park, MD extending municipal voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds in 2013. The results in Takoma Park have been incredibly positive, affirming the growing amount of research (see list below)  indicating several benefits of lowering the voting age. In 2013, Takoma Park 16 and 17 year olds voted at twice the rate of voters 18 and older. Residents also support the measure. In an exit poll of an April 2014 Takoma Park special election, 72% of participants supported keeping voting rights for 16 and 17 year olds in city elections.

Hyattsville, MD, with FairVote’s support, followed Takoma Park’s lead and adopted 16 and 17 year old voting in January of 2015. Watch 15 year old Sarah Leonard speak with MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki about expanding suffrage in Hyattsville below. 

At first glance, folks usually assume that 16 year olds are unable to make mature, informed decisions about voting, that they will not turn out to vote, or that they will just vote the way their parents tell them to. However, the latest research is a revelation and indicates that all three of those assumptions are untrue.

Reasons to lower the voting age include the following:

  • Extending voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds is consistent with the fact that turning 16 has special significance in our culture. At age 16, citizens can drive, pay taxes, and for the first time work without any restriction on hours. It’s also a matter of fairness: when unable to vote until turning 18, some citizens won’t have a chance to vote for their mayor until they are almost 22. Long-time backers of a lower voting age, like the National Youth Rights Association, make this fairness argument as well.

  • This change has worked in practice. Two Maryland cities have successfully extended municipal voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. Several nations, including Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom have extended voting rights to 16 year olds for national, regional, or local elections. Additionally, more than 15 states already allow 17 year olds to vote in primaries to nominate candidates for president, Congress, and governor.  

  • Research indicates that there is a “trickle up” effect on civic participation. When 16 and 17 year olds engage in civics, conversations about politics and local issues are brought to the dinner table. Parents and family members are engaged in civic life through the 16 and 17 year olds in their household, with a positive impact on voter turnout for people of all ages.

  • A detailed study of voters' ages and habits in Denmark found that 18 year olds were far more likely to cast their "first vote" than 19 year olds, and that every month of extra age in those years resulted in a decline in "first vote" turnout. Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections will enable them to vote before leaving home and high school, and establish a life-long habit of voting. Evidence from Austria confirms that extending voting rights to people after they turn 16 promotes higher turnout for first-time voters and over time. Austria's experience also shows that 16 and 17 year olds are ready to contribute sound decision making and quality participation in democracy.

Ongoing Initiatives

The San Francisco Youth Commission has passed a resolution in support of extending municipal voting rights to 16 and 17 year old citizens in San Francisco, CA.  The Youth Commission is organizing an effort in 2015 to make San Francisco the largest U.S. city to adopt and implement 16 and 17 year old voting.

United Teen Equality Center (UTEC): 17-year-olds in Lowell (MA) have come together to push for municipal voting rights. They have gained the support of their local government, newspaper, and several other organizations. In Massachusetts, changes in municipal law must be approved by the state legislature. UTEC's Vote17 has worked with state representatives to introduce and push the new legislation at the state level.

A bill in New York's State Senate would allow 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote.

A bill in New Mexico's state legislature would allow 16 and 17 year old citizens to vote in school board elections.

Learn more on 17-year-old primary voting

Research and Resources

Promote Our Vote's Maryland Advocacy Toolkit includes a page on lowering the voting age.

Our coverage of Hyattsville's decision to lower the voting age at the blog

Our coverage of Takoma Park's Historic Expansion of Suffrage at the blog.  

A Scottish study from 2014 finds that 16 and 17 year old voters are just as political as older counterparts, and that there is no strong association with the voting intentions of their parents. 

The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge released a report recommending youth voting

A study on civic education and voting indicates that youth engagement has a "trickle up" effect on voting habits of parents.

An Austrian study from 2012 found that the quality of 16 and 17 year old citizens' choices were the same as older voters'.

In Denmark, young voters voted more when they could vote sooner.

A Rutgers study finds that 16 and 17 year olds are both neurologically and socially mature enough to vote responsibly.

Full employment, driving, taxation and other rites of adulthood begin at 16.

This piece by Democratic Audit UK argues that while lowering the voting age is not a panacea for youth engagement, it is essential for democracy.

Generation Citizen has produced a legal study analyzing the feasibility of municipal campaigns to lower the voting age, as well as a comprehensive white paper on the benefits of 16 and 17 year old voting.


Get Involved with Promote Our Vote

take action

Interested in expanding voting rights in your hometown?

Check out FairVote's Promote Our Vote project!

Grounded in our belief that voting is a fundamental right in a democracy, the Promote Our Vote project has four goals: increasing voter participation in cities, protecting voter access in all elections, generating conversations about ways to expand suffrage, and building support for a constitutional right to vote. Acting as a catalyst and clearinghouse on suffrage policies and practices, Promote Our Vote provides legal analysis, electoral research, and communications assistance to individuals and organizations as they advance local resolutions in support of a constitutional right to vote and concrete measures designed to meet our objectives.