Paradoxically, those with the greatest stake in our country’s future vote at the lowest rates.
In the 2018 election, only about one-third of Massachusetts’ eligible voters 24 years old and under cast a ballot, compared with roughly two-thirds of voters over age 45. In the 2016 presidential election, the total turnout was higher, but the gap between younger and older voters was nearly the same.
One idea to increase participation is gaining traction: Let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in city elections. The idea is more limited than proposals Congress debated (and ultimately rejected) earlier this year to lower the national voting age for federal elections.
In fact, the Massachusetts cities already have the right to submit a home-rule petition to the Legislature asking to lower the voting age to 16 or 17 for its own municipal elections.
A growing number of cities and towns have taken up the option. Shelburne, Ashfield, and Wendell have sent petitions over the past 15 years. Cambridge, Lowell, and Wendell have petitioned twice. Concord and Somerville recently joined the movement, and Northampton is considering joining as well.
There’s one problem, though.
In every case, the state legislature has failed to act on the petition. The legislators have neither approved nor opposed the request — they’ve just largely ignored them.
Excitingly, a new bill proposes a simple fix: Bypass Beacon Hill. The Empower Act would give cities the right to act on their own, without the need for state action.
Research and data from other states suggest the Empower Act could have a powerful impact.
Growing evidence indicates that letting 16- and 17-year-olds vote leads to greater sustained voter participation. Whereas 18-year-olds are often in the midst of major life transitions — heading off to college, finding jobs, figuring out how to live independently. Young voters often say they are too busy to vote, according to studies by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University. By contrast, most 16- and 17-years olds are living at home and attending high school, making it more likely that they will vote in their first election.
Studies suggest that voting is habit-forming. Voting in one election is correlated with a higher likelihood of voting in subsequent elections, according to research from Yale University and other institutions. Conversely, failing to vote in their first election correlates with habitual nonvoting later in life, according to research from Pennsylvania State University.
The idea is supported by experiences in Maryland, where four cities have adopted youth voting in municipal elections. The city of Takoma Park lowered its voting age in 2013: The turnout for 16- and 17-years old registered voters was 47 percent in the most recent municipal elections, compared to 20 percent for registered voters overall.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that states were “laboratories of democracy.” So, too, should our cities and towns be vibrant laboratories for exploring how to increase civic participation. We should capitalize on these experiments to rigorously study whether lowering the voting age can result in a sustained increase in voter turnout.
Governor Baker and the Legislature made clear that they are committed to ensuring our young people become actively engaged citizens when they passed a pioneering civic education law in November.
The Empower Act would be a powerful complement, letting cities and towns give young people a concrete way to practice engaging in our democracy.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and author living in the Boston area.