Let 17-year-olds vote

By Corinne Plaisir and Carline Kirksey
July 24, 2012

LOWELL, Mass.—We are teenagers – 17-year-old teenagers – and at a time of increasing voter apathy, we want to vote. We’ve come up with a way to encourage our peers to become good life-long voters and combat decreased voter turnout – by lowering the voting age to 17 in our hometown’s municipal elections here in Lowell.

Our bill, currently in a statehouse committee, would provide for a city ballot question in November 2013 to let Lowell voters decide whether or not 17-year-olds can vote in its municipal elections, and only its municipal elections. If yes, 17-year-olds will be able to vote in 2015, for the first time anywhere in the country. Lowell has led in historic efforts before: from the Industrial Revolution to Mill Girl strikes to having the first co-ed high school in the country. We are ready to lead again.

We started the voting age movement after a 2009 youth-led city council candidates’ forum held by a nonprofit youth development organization, the United Teen Equality Center (better known as UTEC, where we serve as youth organizers). Before the forum, teens surveyed hundreds of their peers to find out what the top issues were. Youth representation was among the top three issues. All city council candidates were asked if they would support lowering the voting age to 17 in our local elections; 18 out of 19 said yes.

In 2010, the Lowell City Council successfully passed a home-rule petition that was sent to the Statehouse. With its favorable passage from the Joint Committee on Election Laws, our bill has now made it further than any other bill of its kind. Now our bill has to go through both the House and Senate floor to reach the governor’s desk by July 31. After the governor receives our bill, it will come back to Lowell for a final vote.

It seems illogical for 18 to be the voting-age threshold. Eighteen-year-olds are either starting work or going to college, often in a city far from home. At best, they find that their first opportunity to vote locally is by mailing in an absentee ballot. Seventeen-year-olds are still at home, likely still in school and definitely still affected by their local politics. They are directly impacted by local policies affecting our schools and community. Seventeen-year-olds are surrounded with the support they need to be coached through practicing their civic rights. They are in the last stage of their lives before they leave and begin adulthood. It is at this age that the next generation should be taught and guided through voting.

There’s evidence that 17-year-olds are intellectually ready to vote. A research study done in 2011 by Rutgers University at Camden professors Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins found that 16- and 17-year-olds score the same on questions about political knowledge as 21-year-olds. Seventeen-year-olds are usually seniors in high school and have usually completed their history or civics requirements. They have a leadership role in their schools and are busy preparing for their futures; voting should be built into this stage in life.

In 1970, it made sense to lower the voting age to 18 from 21 because of the changing times. Ted Kennedy in his speech to the Senate in 1971 said: “Our young people today are far better equipped – intellectually, physically, and emotionally – to make the type of choices involved in voting than were past generations of youth.” He also said: “I believe that both the exercise of the franchise and the expectation of the franchise provide a strong incentive for greater political involvement and understanding.” All that still holds true.

We know that voting at 17 will increase voter turnout in our community. According to Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell’s research, when high school students are exposed to civic norms and practices, voter turnout increases by 7 percentage points. Peter Levine, Director of Circle (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University testified at our public hearing for our bill and stated that voting at an early age becomes habitual. He said that today’s system “is a recipe for low turnout, and the effects are lasting, because research shows that voting is a habitual behavior.” A study done by Penn State political scientist, Eric Plutzer in 2002, found that the best way to create participating voters is to use the idea of habitual voting to get young people voting in their hometowns early.

Over the coming days, we look forward to working with Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo to transform our bill into an opportunity for Lowell to be the pilot for this idea. In fact, Circle has committed to help continue to research the impact of allowing 17-year-olds to vote and get practical results. As stated in an editorial in the Republican, a local newspaper in Springfield: “Everyone likes to bemoan the low rates of voter participation across our nation. Here’s a golden opportunity to look at one way of increasing turnout. The arguments – on both sides – are only theoretical now. Getting some practical results only makes sense.” This past year Lowell saw a voter turnout of less than 19.75 percent, the lowest in its history. This is a major challenge to our democracy.

Our bill is unique. It asks for the state legislature to allow the people of our city to be able to vote on this issue by placing the question as a referendum on Lowell’s 2013 municipal ballot. To do so, we need the state legislature’s approval by July 31. Each of the more than 40 teens who work on this campaign has his or her own personal motivation for becoming involved. For some, it is because they once felt discouraged and disengaged by the system. For others, it is being able to fight for the next generation that is the most rewarding. Ultimately, we feel that the people of Lowell deserve to have a say on whether 17-year-olds should vote in municipal elections. That’s why we’ve adopted the rallying cry of “Let Lowell Vote!” It’s time to try something new.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Gregg Croteau.

15 comments

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Make voting mandatory and give the option to vote ‘no-confidence’ or ‘none of the above’. If the % of votes that fall into that category is above 5% then a re-election is required with new candidates. Voting is treated by most too flippantly and it’s part of the reason why politicians need to pander so hard.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Worst. Idea. Ever. What do these 17-year-old kids know about fiscal discipline, when they are still living with their parents, and living on their parents’ money? As if our bankrupt country, $15.8 Trillion in debt, needs more handouts, the type that kids get from their parents. If anything, raise the voting age to 21! If the law says you are too immature to handle alcohol, then you are too immature to vote.

Posted by BigRocket | Report as abusive

I see the mandatory voting argument all the time and I wonder if people realize that making voting mandatory violates absolutely every basic tenet of the freedom that we do go out and vote to keep. It’s a bit of a catch 22 but mandatory voting makes the entire idea of voting irrelevant by destroying the concept of a free democracy.

As for 17-year-old voting…go for it, kids. You can’t do any worse than the older generations have done.

Posted by rlr524 | Report as abusive

I disagree. I think 28 should be the minimum age as youth and politics is a just a bad combination… like guns and alcohol or nuclear weapons and dictators.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

While 28 may be a bit much, 18 is too young – back to 21 makes sense – but 23 or 24 is probably better. This commenter had a bachelor’s degree before being able to vote at 21. Today’s often 18 year old HS sophomores have neither the experience nor judgment generally to meaningfully and responsibly participate in choosing who governs us. And, no – serving in the military does not in and of itself qualify you to make those judgments.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

let 17 year old’s drink beer. let 17 year olds be drafted
then they would have a clearer understanding of what the world’s about.

Posted by Dave1968 | Report as abusive

Like another commenter. There should be one age limit for everything; voting, drinking, military service; the individual is no longer the responsibility of his parents.

As for lowering the voting age; lets increase it to 30. Maybe by then people will be mature, educated any intelligent enough to make smart decisions. Very doubtful.

Better yet, develop a voting qualification panel.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

The age for voting and drinking should be 24. Military service should be restricted until the age of 24 also, except when lowered by an act of congress with a 2/3 vote.

Posted by Willie12345 | Report as abusive

Instead of talking about the minimum voting age let’s talk about a maximum voting age. The elderly have no care for the long term health of the country, just their short term interests. I say we take away voting privileges to anyone over 70. You should have no say in the direction the country will go when you will not even be around to face the consequences.

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

Have to go with Plato on this one and agree that the minimum voting age should be 30. How many of us over the age of 30 still think and believe in the same things we did when a child of 17? Lord of the Flies on a national scale?

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

Or, has been said by others – if you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart – if you are not conservative when you are old, you have no brain.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

@anarcurt: Cool story bro, but it doesn’t work like that in the real world. The elderly may not be long for this world, but they generally care about the country’s future for the sake of their children and grandchildren. Nice try though, and for a brief moment I almost forgot about the absurdity of letting 17-year-old *kids* vote for our next President.

Posted by BigRocket | Report as abusive

Voting should be limited to taxpayers and property owners.

Posted by mulholland | Report as abusive

mulholland, how about just tax payers, regular taxpayers. Romney might not qualify.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

The question is not who should have the right to vote. The question is whether people are wise enough to vote.

There is nothing unreasonable about requiring people to have adult experience before voting. When the 21 year limit was enshrined in the 18th century it was not unusual for people to get get married at 14. Many were self supporting at 14. By that standard, since most people are not self supporting until 20 or 22, making the age for voting 27 would be quite reasonable.

Posted by ywatkins | Report as abusive