Even in this age of political polarization, we can all agree that our democracy is broken. Only 42 percent of registered Californians turned out to vote in the 2014 election, a historic low. Democracy only works when people are able to consistently express their will at the ballot box. Our democracy will stop functioning if we cannot find a way to increase the proportion of Americans who vote.
There are many ways to increase voter participation. But few could be as effective, or embody the spirit of our democracy more, than allowing 16-year-old Americans to vote.
Voting is habit-forming. Once we vote once, we tend to vote again and again. Studies by political scientists at institutions like Penn State and Yale universities have shown that if citizens vote in the first election for which they are eligible, they often become voters for life.
At 16, when most young Americans are still in high school, we have many more levers to ensure that they cast a ballot at their first opportunity.
Polling places can be set up in their schools, and they can be given the morning off to vote. In addition, students can easily learn about the election from their school, family and community, giving them the knowledge and confidence to vote all the way down the ballot.
Two towns in Maryland, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, have recently begun to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. These towns have experienced higher turnout among young people than the rest of the population. And if research holds, these young Americans will vote more frequently over their entire life.
But allowing young Americans to vote is not only efficient, it’s also just. Our country was built on the rallying cry of no taxation without representation — that democracy consists of those who are affected by government having a right and a duty to participate in that institution. Sixteen-year-olds pay taxes and can be tried as adults in a court of law. They are paying into our society, and our democratic principles compel us to give them a say in how our society is governed.
Changing the law to allow more Americans to vote has never been easy.
Whether it was extending the right to women, people of color or those under the age of 21, the opposition always argued that these Americans were not capable or informed enough to make voting decisions. Or that they were already represented by their husbands, masters or parents.
In the debate over allowing younger Americans to vote, these same arguments are being repeated. Yet they still ring hollow. Our democracy was founded on the principle that each person’s right to vote is self-evident, regardless of whether they aced or failed their high school civics class.
The argument that young Americans are not knowledgeable enough to vote has also been refuted by a study by professors from Rutgers University who found little difference between the political knowledge of 16-year-olds and 21-year-olds. The study found that by 16 years old (but not before), American teens manifested the same levels of development in key qualities of citizenship as those apparent in young adults who are allowed to vote.
San Francisco, at the leading edge of so many of our country’s struggles to perfect our democracy, has the opportunity to take the lead again. Young San Franciscans, including dynamic Riordan High School senior Joshua Cardenas, have put forward a proposal that would lead to a ballot amendment to reduce the voting age for municipal elections to 16. Supervisor John Avalos has introduced this proposal at the Board of Supervisors.
The youth of our city are crying out to participate in the decisions that will impact them and their communities for decades to come. Now is our chance to empower and enfranchise them, so we can join together to rebuild our broken democracy.
Nick Josefowitz is an elected member of the BART board of directors, representing San Francisco, and a regional board member of Generation Citizen. Scott Warren is the executive director of Generation Citizen, an organization that empowers young people to become engaged and effective citizens.