Washington DC — At 17, Luly Torres is old enough to drive a car, pay taxes and even campaign for elected officials. But voting is off the table.
The Salem, Oregon teen has high hopes for a pending amendment proposed to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. If it passes, Oregon voters would decide on the fate of the proposal in the 2020 election.
Torres believes voting at 16 could encourage teenagers to become informed life-long voters and eventually boost voter turnout.
“[Teens] help a lot in community organizing and advocacy, and they do all of these things for different ballot measures and campaigns. And yet in the end, they don’t get to do the thing that matters the most — voting,” she said.
Organizations like Vote16USA and Bus Project have pushed to lower the voting age for years, but the issue has gained new momentum as young people rally around issues including climate change, sexual assault and gun violence — especially following the Parkland, Florida shooting. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley recently proposed lowering the federal voting age to 16. The amendment failed despite support from 126 members of the House.
“There’s been this huge shift ... A lot more youth are getting involved in the community and in politics, and I think that it’s only fair that they also get a say in what’s happening,” Torres said.
Oregon isn’t the first state to consider the idea of allowing 16-year-olds to vote. Takoma Park, Maryland became the first city in the country to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections. Two other Maryland cities — Greenbelt and Hyattsville — have since passed legislation to lower the voting age. The Washington, D.C. City Council tabled a proposal last year that would have allowed minors to vote in all DC elections, including casting a vote for president. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia currently allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote.
But among young people, activism continues.
Jeremy Clark insists he’s ready to vote and thinks teens should have a voice in the issues that impact their lives. The Portland, Oregon 14-year-old recently organized his school’s climate control strike where he gave a speech to 3,000 other students.
“The decisions that our elected officials and the important adults in our world make today will affect my generation’s future for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Oregon State Sen. Shemia Fagan, who is sponsoring the measure to lower the state’s voting age, said that while her bill has support, she’s heard a lot of dissent from older constituents who cite everything from historically low turnout among young people to long-gone teen trends. A date for lawmakers to consider lowering the voting age in Oregon remains unscheduled.
“I can’t tell you how many people have sent me videos or referenced Tide Pods as a reason that 16 and 17-year-olds shouldn’t vote,” Fagan said. “The idea that you could point at the worst behavior of teenagers as the reason to not let them vote is just not a logic that you could carry to any other voting population.”
While on the campaign trail, Fagan said one student mentioned that he felt he would be more likely to vote at 16 or 17, while surrounded by parents, teachers and other mentors, than at 18 or 19 when many teens are away at college or living on their own.
Youth turnout is generally so low because campaign outreach is largely based on data from the previous election cycle, meaning that those too young to vote in the previous election are often ignored by campaigns, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of CIRCLE — a Tufts University center that studies young voters and civic engagement.
But Gen Z and millennial voters turned out in record numbers in the 2018 midterms,and claims that teens would not vote anyway if given the chance are at best “untested,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. She added that activism since the Parkland, Florida shooting proved that young people are great at mobilizing each other when they have the resources to do so.
“I think something we’ve been seeing is that a lot of kids my age are really frustrated with the way things are going in the government right now. They’re all really wanting change. We saw that in the school strike for the climate,” Clark said.
“We get underestimated a lot. I honestly believe that a lot of the youth in high school are actually more informed about current events than adults.”