Should 16-Year-Olds Vote? A Suffrage Historian Weighs In

The last time the US lowered federal voting age was in 1971, when it declined from 21 to 18. The chief rationale was that 18-year-olds sent to Vietnam to fight, perhaps to die, had earned a chance to affect their country’s politics.

In November 2013, Takoma Park, MD became the first in US to grant power to vote to 16 and 17 years old. Now the idea is spreading across the country, fueled by the passionate and effective #NeverAgain activism of students from Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida, where 17 were killed and another 17 wounded on Valentine’s Day.

To me, a historian of women’s suffrage in the United States, this is a fascinating debate. In the Revolutionary era, only white men of property could vote. Only with Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828 – and only because Jackson wanted to topple the elites by expanding the electorate – was the franchise extended to white working class men. And only a bloody Civil War led to the constitutional guarantee of rights for African-Americans, although these rights would have to be newly protected with the Voting Rights Act one hundred years later.

As for women, as I wrote in my book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, the evolution of voting in the United States has a long history. Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote – in 1890 — followed by others in the West, including Colorado in 1893 and California in 1911. These states were precursors of an eventual trend that led immediately to the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, that codified the voting rights of women, and the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, that protected those of African-Americans.

The right to vote in the United States has been a constant adaption to the pulse of political will. As young students like those from Parkland get more involved in the politics of the nation, one can envision calls for an end to gerrymandering and at-large elections, two practices critics believe disadvantage minorities, and for a restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who have served their terms.

When French political observer Alexis De Tocqueville toured the United States in the mid-1830s, he sensed this feature of American democracy. “When a nation begins to modify the elective qualification, it may easily be foreseen that sooner or later that qualification will be entirely abolished,” he wrote. “The further that electoral rights are extended, the greater is the need of extending them; for after each concession the strength of democracy increases, and its demands increase with its strength.”

Perhaps 16-year-olds are not yet mature enough to make electoral decisions. Perhaps they are too coarsened by culture to be denied the vote. One thing is sure: a debate over their fitness for the vote has already begun.

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