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16 Candles—and a Ballot?

Almost 40 years after the U.S. lowered the voting age to 18, there's talk of letting 16- and 17-year-olds go to the polls

By Pam Belluck

Britten Shelson, a high school senior in Saginaw, Mich., feels very strongly about the importance of casting her first ballot in Michigan's presidential primary this month.

"It's one of the things I was most looking forward to about turning 18," Shelson says. "I think everyone should want to have a say. I guess some people just don't care, but I think that's sort of irresponsible."

But if you ask her if the voting age should be lowered to 16 to allow even more young people to participate, Shelson gives a very different answer: "There's a big difference between 16 and 18. I wouldn't support that."

The last time Americans really talked about what the voting age should be was almost 40 years ago, when 18-year-olds were being ordered to the Vietnam battlefield three years before they could cast ballots. That changed in 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

But now some countries are opening their polls to even younger voters, prompting discussion about whether the United States should also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.

Last summer, Austria became the first country in the European Union to adopt 16 as the voting age for all elections, joining Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Isle of Man, which is part of the British Isles. Germany allows voting at 16 in some local elections. In Slovenia, 16-year-olds with jobs can vote, and the new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, recently hinted that he's in favor of letting 16-year-olds vote.

Half a Vote?

In the U.S., there are 18 states in which 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in primaries or caucuses if they will be 18 by the general election in November (see chart below). And in recent years, various vote-at-16 proposals have been made by lawmakers in New York City, Baltimore, Minnesota, Texas, Maine, and California, where a state senator proposed giving 16-year-olds half a vote in state elections, and 14-year-olds a quarter-vote.

None of these efforts have advanced very far. But with another war on—and 17-year-olds allowed to enlist in the armed forces with a parent's consent—supporters say that adolescents are not only competent to cast ballots, but would also focus attention on issues of particular interest to young people, like education and the environment.

Opponents say 16-year-olds are not as mature or experienced as older voters and predict that most of them—like most 18-year-olds—wouldn't actually vote anyway.

Political calculation certainly lies behind some of the proposals to lower the voting age: It's an easy, attention-grabbing idea for a politician to float, especially when it seems unlikely to happen.

(In Iran, political considerations led President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to go in the opposite direction and raise the voting age—from 15 to 18—after his party suffered losses in an election in which large numbers of students voted against his candidates.)

Low Turnout

In the U.S., 18- to 24-year-olds are consistently the least likely group to turn out on Election Day (see chart below). Perhaps that's why so many organizations, like Rock the Vote and Declare Yourself, have mounted major efforts to get more young people registered and to actually vote.

All the major presidential candidates have groups targeted to young people. There's Students for Rudy, Students for Ron Paul, and for Hillary Clinton, "Hillblazers." Barack Obama has held weekly "BarackStar" nights via conference call for teenagers in his campaign's 31 Iowa field offices.

Advocates for lowering the voting age offer a variety of reasons.

"If we trust them to drive at 16, why don't we trust them to vote?" says Phyllis Kahn, a Minnesota State Representative, who has proposed lowering the voting age to 16 in her state. She adds that "an irresponsible driver can do much more harm than an irresponsible voter."

Several experts who work with and study adolescents agree that 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to handle voting.

"Yesterday's 18-year-olds are today's 16-year-olds," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, whose Simon's Rock campus in Great Barrington, Mass., takes students from the 10th and 11th grades. "We have overrated the childlike aspects of adolescence."

But Botstein says "we're kidding ourselves" to think many 16-year-olds would actually vote.

Few did in Maryland in 2003, when because of a scheduling fluke, some 16-year-olds were allowed to cast ballots in the Baltimore mayoral primary, says Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.

"Hardly anybody age 16 to 18 voted," Crenson says. "They're in a state of flux, they're growing up."

No argument there from people like Amanda Carbonneau of Hopkinton, Mass., who turns 16 this month.

"I think that a lot of kids around 16 or 15 aren't really up-to-date on the current politics and wouldn't really be able to make an informed decision," she says. "Most kids that I know would really vote based on something having to do with a silly reason."

Which doesn't account for people like Collin Rice, who was politically aware before he was out of elementary school.At age 10, he testified at the Minnesota Statehouse, urging lawmakers to lower the voting age—but only to 16.

After all, he testified, "I can't reach the ballot box."