This election day, if voters approve Proposition F, San Francisco will become the largest American city to lower the voting age to sixteen for local elections. Meanwhile, Berkeley voters will consider letting sixteen year-olds vote in school board elections. Currently, American sixteen year-olds can vote only in Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland, and only in local races. However, the California legislature will soon debate constitutional amendments to lower the voting age statewide.
Why should high schoolers vote? Dozens of young people at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing on the voting-age charter amendment proposed by the Youth Commission testified to the distinct hardships they face and the failure of older generations to represent their interests. In one of the world’s richest cities (average household income: $127,000), one third of fifteen to seventeen year-olds live in poverty. As San Francisco’s population ballooned by 180,000 over the last thirty-five years, driven by its surging tech boom, its middle school- and high school-aged population fell by 12,000. The African American youth cohort has dropped by 70 percent.
“We’re being gentrified out of our neighborhoods,” said Sammi Mei, 16, a sentiment shared by speaker after speaker. “Half the ballot issues directly relate to youth, though we are not able to vote on them,” testified Jillian Wu. “I can only bring these political issues into simulated exercises and debates that really have no effect on anything,” Natasha Salmi, 14, said.
Supervisors voted 9-2 to recommend the charter amendment to the November election ballot. Its supporters, led by Vote16SF, promise a vigorous campaign. Several dozen local and national organizations and leaders, led by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have endorsed the amendment. Unanimous support by the San Francisco Unified School District board sparked revamping of civics courses to prepare for real-life voting.
As for critics, San Francisco Chronicle columnists have attacked the “kiddie vote” in derisive tones. “Registering teenagers, who for the most part don’t really understand money, is a recipe for folly,” declared pundit Debra J. Saunders. Several questioned the inconsistency of lowering the voting age after supervisors just raised the age to buy tobacco to twenty-one.
Critics argue that statistics, science, and common sense show teenagers to be reckless and impulsive. Don’t brain scans (called functional magnetic resonance imagings, or fMRIs) scientifically prove that teenagers’ undeveloped prefrontal cortexes promote risky behaviors and hamper higher reasoning? We don’t let adolescents decide whether to drink, smoke, have guns, drive independently, be in public late at night, or have sex with grownups. How can “underage” juveniles be mature enough to vote on complex public issues and hold office?
Not so fast, advocates respond. Today’s teens not only should have a say in the issues that affect them most, they are perfectly capable of responsibly exercising the franchise. A recent large-scale review found fMRI techniques too unreliable and inconsistent to interpret, potentially invalidating a decade of research. Research teams in a 2007 Scientific American article reported no link between adolescent brain development and irrational behavior; in fact, more adult-like brains predicted riskier thinking. In practical assessments, sixteen year-olds function at about the same level on cognitive, moral, and legal reasoning tests as adults—the very qualities needed to evaluate candidates and issues. After hearing four hours of youthful testimony on San Francisco’s voting age amendment, Supervisor David Campos observed, “The level of discourse in this chamber has certainly been elevated by these young people.” Two supervisors changed their votes from “no” to “yes.”
Further, if consistency were the rule, then African Americans, women, and the non-propertied never would have won voting rights. People aged eighteen to thirty-five, constitutionally barred from the presidency, would be banned from voting. Statistics show men behave much worse than women on average, yet men vote. Some teens (like some adults) may lack the experience and information to make mature electoral decisions, but we don’t bar adults from the polls to weed out “low-information voters.” Why is “consistency” selectively demanded for young people’s rights?
Is it even true that teenagers take risks while adults act prudently? American adults’ use of guns, alcohol, and tobacco causes or contributes to millions of deaths and injuries annually; many of the victims are children and teenagers. And to the extent that teens do behave dangerously, poverty and disadvantage, not age, are the chief culprits. In a series of journal-published studies of violent crime, criminal arrest, homicides, gun killings, and traffic crashes, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found adolescents act no more crazily than adults when the poverty rate is held constant. Middle-aged adults subjected to the same high poverty levels as the average teenager (20 percent or higher) suffered risks comparable to teens; teenagers enjoying the low poverty levels typical of middle-agers (below 10 percent) had low risks. The real problem is that adolescents are twice as likely to live in poverty as older adults.
Even in the face of disadvantage, today’s young people defy easy stereotypes. Behaviors among San Francisco’s young, for example, have improved dramatically and bear little resemblance to the conventional image of risk-happy teens. Youth arrests have dropped 80 percent per capita (even after factoring the youth population decline) in recent decades. Today, high-school-age teens make up just 3 percent of the city’s arrests and violent crime, 2 percent of suicides, and 0.2 percent of deaths from overdoses of drugs or alcohol. Twice as many locals in their fifties as youths are getting arrested. Meanwhile, young people’s educational attainment has risen dramatically despite higher costs and debt. Just 3 percent of San Francisco’s sixteen to nineteen year-olds are dropouts (a record low) and half are enrolled in higher education (a record high)—another trend with profound implications for civic participation.
In sum, age-based restrictions function to blame and punish the young, not protect them (a point one of us elaborated for the Washington Monthly in August). Young people are subjected to sub-minimum wages, denial of jobs, banishment from public and entertainment venues, severely curtailed legal rights, crushing education debt, and harassment for “status crimes” not applied to adults. Young people’s political powerlessness is one reason why leaders find it easy to relegate them to harsh conditions and then blame them for misbehaviors rooted in surviving disadvantage—exactly the issues younger voters need the power to address for their own good and that of society.