Civics classes — where high school students learn about the three branches of government — end with a cumulative exam, but the real test for politically-minded young people comes when they cast their first vote. High schoolers are reminded to register for these classes, but many students are still 17, and therefore, too young to vote. At 18, many teens are going off to college, which often means a change in address or even home state, making voter registration difficult and confusing. Perhaps that contributes to the dismal voter turnout from the 2016 election, wherein 50% of people ages 18 through 29 failed to vote.
Low voter turnout among young people is not due to a lack of knowledge or passion, but the result of poor timing. When young people don’t register and vote at the first opportunity, they are unlikely to do it come the next election. Failure to vote becomes a habit.
Luckily, two state assemblymembers this year have identified this problem and proposed bills in California and New York legislatures to lower the voting age by one year. This change, while not drastic, will allow for students to register while still in high school, rather than when they are making the transition to adulthood.
In California, Assemblymember Evan Low proposed Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 10 to lower the voting age to 17. Low, 34, explained that he proposed the bill because he believes “young people are our future.”
“Lowering the voting age will help give them a voice in the democratic process and instill a lifelong habit of voting,” Low said. ACA 10 was written with the support of the bipartisan Millennial Caucus, a coalition of young, state-level elected officials. California representatives of both parties acknowledge that increasing voter turnout is the only way to elect people to pass laws that accurately represent the priorities of their constituents.
On the other side of the country, a member of the New York state legislature had the same idea as Low. In March, Assemblymember Robert Carroll introduced the Young Voter Act, a bill that will lower the voting age in New York to 17. Carroll, 30, wrote this bill after being approached by a group of local high schoolers who wanted to increase their civic engagement. Rather than just telling these kids to volunteer on his next campaign, he sat down with them and penned a way for them to gain a political voice.
Carroll has said that he believes that voting is a fundamental right that should be granted to teens during habit-forming years to ensure that they become active participants in our government. “Government should be fostering citizenship among young people — I think the more people involved, the better and more representative our government will be,” he said.
Assemblymembers Low and Carroll are leading this fight on behalf of young people everywhere. These legislators understand that these voices deserve to be heard, and have both agreed to be the first ones to really listen. If California and New York lower the voting age, other states could possibly follow suit.
While it is exciting that the movement to lower the voting age has support in California and New York, it also faces opposition. The primary argument against lowering the voting age addresses intellect and maturity: People claim that 17-year-olds don’t know enough about politics and will cast their votes without understanding the issues. But teens are engaged with politics, from the classes they take in high school and the amount of news they read and access on social media. Additionally, the right to vote is not based on intellect. Literacy tests were outlawed in 1965 — and adults do not have to demonstrate any level of understanding prior to casting their votes.
Seventeen-year-olds are ready and willing to engage in the political system, they just need a ballot.