A key tenet of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been his ability to appeal to young people, and thus expand the electorate. Or so he hoped: The Vermont senator has found that convincing the TikTok demographic to show up at the polls in surging numbers is, in fact, quite challenging.
“Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in?” he said the day after Super Tuesday, when he got clobbered by former vice president Joe Biden in several crucial states. “The answer is no.”
One of the great mysteries of 2020: how come young people don't come out to vote even when they have a presidential candidate they like?— Tony Schwartz (@tonyschwartz) March 4, 2020
It may not help this presidential election cycle, but one promising way to boost turnout over time is to lower the voting age in local-only elections from 18 to 16, to help young people form the habit of voting. It can also serve as a way to familiarize teens with the voting process and get them onto the voter rolls, without changing who can vote in state or national elections. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction in Brookline, Concord, Cambridge, and a few other Massachusetts municipalities. Lawmakers have introduced legislation on Beacon Hill that would ease the way for municipalities to voluntarily experiment with a lower voting age, and the idea deserves approval.
Lowering the voting age to 16 is not as radical as it might sound. Youth at 16 are still developing emotionally and may struggle with impulse control, but they are no less equipped with the deliberative skills needed to vote than 40- or 60-year-olds. “There is strong empirical evidence that the cognitive processes required for competent voting reliably mature by age 16,” according to a 2012 review of cognitive research on adolescents.
In Massachusetts, letting 16- and 17-year-olds cast a ballot in local races would be a natural result of an enhanced civics education curriculum, which the state passed into law in 2018. The new law includes, among other things, a first-in-the-nation requirement that eighth-graders and high school students complete a non-partisan civics project on a local, state, or federal policy issue.
Allowing 16-year-olds to vote can be done with the considered discretion of individual towns — say, only for municipal elections such as school committee, city council, or town meeting. Takoma Park, Md., in 2013 became the first American city to lower the voting age for local elections to 16 (two other Maryland municipalities followed suit). It’s been a small but favorable experiment: The turnout rate of 16- and 17-year-old eligible voters in Takoma Park was nearly double the turnout rate of eligible voters 18 and up. Given the notoriously low voter participation in municipal elections across the board, that’s not a small number.
Since voting is a habit that takes years to form, it makes sense to start early — particularly if 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to show up at the polls than an 18-year-old. At age 16, a young person may be in a relatively stable situation, living at home with parents and taking civic education lessons at school. In contrast, when 18-year-olds earn the right to vote, they’re probably transitioning into college or a job, and possibly moving to another city, where they have no connection to local civic issues or familiarity with candidates for office. That makes them a lot less likely to engage politically and vote for the first time at 18. There’s evidence of that: A 2012 study from Denmark showed that “young adults living at home vote more than those who have moved out on their own,” researchers wrote.
The EMPOWER Act, a bill currently pending on Beacon Hill, would grant all cities and towns in Massachusetts the ability to lower the voting age for municipal elections to 16 without having to go through a home rule petition. The EMPOWER Act, sponsored by state Representatives Andy Vargas and Dylan Fernandes, and state senator Harriette Chandler, would let them do it on their own without the Legislature’s approval.
Voting takes effort and practice. A 16-year-old allowed to vote in local elections is more likely to become a future voter in presidential contests by the time they turn 18, the federal voting age, and in every subsequent election. Young adults at 16 are at a prime age to learn the ropes of being citizens and to recognize the impact their vote can have. For a generation that’s suffering from their elders’ inability to solve problems, from gun violence to climate change, they need all the help they can get. And at a time when voting rights have become fragile, any idea to reinvigorate democracy is worth exploring.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.