Should 16 Year Olds Be Allowed to Vote?

Two State Senators, Stanley Chang and Karl Rhoads have introduced a Constitutional Amendment lowering the voting age (for non-federal) races, to 16.

In an article, published in Civil Beat, Senator Rhoads says, “the idea is to get people in the habit young, and they’ll keep doing it.” A noble intent.

As a wide field of entrenched politicians continues to obstruct substantive changes in the face a wide range of mounting problems, I’ve seen growing effort to increase participation in elections. In most cases, those efforts manifest through voter registration drives and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns.

An extension of those efforts might be to decrease the voting age to 16. However, low voter participation in Hawaii, is only part of what I see as a more complex problem. So, should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? There are opinions on both sides of the debate and I find myself straddling the divide.

Young People Should Have A Say In Their Future

There are certainly good reasons why someone who is 16 should be allowed to vote. In Hawaii, 16 is the age of consent for sex. It’s the age someone can get a learners’ permit to drive a car. Certainly, there are 16 year-olds who are working, who are paying taxes. And the world is on the brink of environmental collapse. Shouldn’t the generation inheriting a world on fire have a say in how we address the problem?

Young people are still required to register for the military draft (18-25). They may be forced to fight (and potentially die) in a war by politicians elected earlier. So, shouldn’t they have a say? And someone can join the military at 17, with parental consent.

I’ve met extremely intelligent, hopeful, engaged and thoughtful teenagers who are well versed in certain policy issues. I’ve seen them campaign for candidates and issues. And I’ve watched and listened as some have spoken passionately and thoughtfully. On matters ranging from gun control to universal health care, to the threat of climate change. Looking at these bright and young future leaders, the answer seems obvious to me; yes, let them vote! The world could only be better for it.

We Shouldn’t Discount Age and Experience

On the other side, someone who is 16 is simply too young to be granted such responsibility. It has been pointed out by some that 18 is the minimum age for “maturity.” The frontal lobe of the brain isn’t fully developed at 16 (though there exists research which says the brain isn’t developed at 18 either). With that immaturity may come a level of inexperience or unfamiliarity with the world. A lack of nuanced understanding of the issues affecting the world today. Or the critical thinking skills necessary to make decisions about candidates or issues.

Maybe its because I’m getting older myself, but I often find myself wondering about young people. About the things that motivate and animate them. Should a generation of people spending countless hours wandering the streets chasing imaginary creatures for sport really be considered mature enough to make decisions that affect everyone?

Though voter turnout for the youngest voting bracket (18-29) saw a significant increase from the 2014 to 2018 midterm elections. It remained low when compared with the 2016 elections (think Bernie Sanders). These increases are promising, but prove to me a relative lack of maturity in voting. Sanders is a charismatic candidate who did indeed energize young people. But in the absence of a mobilizing figure, young voters largely remain disengaged.

I believe strong critical thinking skills are necessary to make informed decisions in the voting booth. With little life experience and a base knowledge primarily reliant on what their teachers are saying, I’m not sure a 16-year-old is properly equipped with knowledge or experience enough to enter a voting booth.

Finally, there is a reason for some concern with 16 year-olds being too influenced by their parents. Or worse, that those receiving ballots at home (Hawaii is contemplating all-mail elections), kids would be forced to vote the way their parents want.

No Easy Answer

Ultimately, every argument against lowing the voting age in Hawaii can be negated by looking at the way seasoned voters make their decisions. Certainly, there are adults who I’d say lack experience, knowledge, or the ability to think critically. So if that’s true for someone who is 18 and can vote, why not let younger people vote as well?

Fears about parents forcing their kids to vote a certain way already exist for kupuna whose ballots are filled out by their caregiving children. But obviously, no one is suggesting senior citizens shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

These are points well taken. I’m just not sure pointing to a moron 40-something’s right to vote is justification for allowing moron kids to vote.

I believe strongly that the problems facing our democracy are deeply structural. With a failing education system and a voyeuristic (and biased) 24-hour news media interested primarily in ratings and entertainment, voters young and old are arguably ill-equipped to make important decisions in the voting booth.

Increasing voter participation is a noble goal and worth supporting. But in the end, my greatest concern is making sure we are giving people the cognitive tools to make informed and thoughtful decisions. Until we tackle this problem, I’m not sure I’m comfortable expanding the voting pool.

I’m sure this debate will continue and friends on both sides of the issue will remain emphatic about why they’re right. I look forward to being convinced one way or another; it just hasn’t happened yet.

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