There's a lot of talk these days about lowering the voting age. Two proposals are on the table. One, filed by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, is an amendment to a Congressional bill that would give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in federal elections. Another pending measure on Beacon Hill would let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections. Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of Tufts University's Center for Information And Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, has studied youth involvement in politics. Kawashima-Ginsberg spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: So, first off, 16-year-olds haven’t even reached the age of majority. They’re not considered adults and are not held to adult standards for responsibility, legal or otherwise. So is having a 16-year-old vote a good idea?
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg: Research really supports the idea that 16-year-olds should be able to vote, and there are several reasons for that. Most importantly, it should actually raise the participation rate of young people, if we start to let them vote at age 16. The reason we say that is that when young people are still living in their community, mostly with their families, at ages 16 and 17, they’re largely attending high school. So they have opportunities to take a social studies course that usually teaches kids about civic engagement and how the government is structured.
Howard: So you’re thinking local elections would be a good place to start?
Kawashima-Ginsberg: That’s a really good entry point, because when you think about school committees, for example, students are the ones that are most affected by those decisions — whether, for example, arts classes can stay in their high school or not.
Howard: But 16- and 17-year-olds, who would be put on the rolls, are mostly still living at home. Won’t their vote just reflect their parents’ votes, and give more weight to their parents’ votes?
Kawashima-Ginsberg: That’s one argument that can potentially push against that. However, when we look at the voting research on mock elections — in some states, there’s a huge effort to let kids practice voting, so they start from kindergarten all the way to high school — we usually find that by the time they’re 16 to 17 years old, they’re starting to form their own opinions, meaning that they don’t look like their parents anymore.
Howard: Young people, even though the voting age is 18, usually turn out in the lowest numbers. What makes you think that the 16- and 17-year-olds will turn out any better?
Kawashima-Ginsberg: There are a couple of cities that have already passed a law to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, in Maryland. When they looked at their own turnout in odd-year municipal elections, it turned out that 16- and 17-year-olds were turning out at a much higher rate than young adults.
Howard: It sounds as though you’re enthusiastic about 16-year-olds voting. What we’ve also seen are studies showing that the teenage brain is not fully developed. Is it developed enough to vote at age 16?
Kawashima-Ginsberg: That’s a really great question. The answer is that parts of the brain that are necessary for voting and making informed decisions are totally mature, they’re ready for that. They’re perhaps not ready for much quicker decision-making, like controlling impulses, but that’s not a part of the brain that’s needed for voting, so they’re okay there.
I also even argue that 16-year-olds may be in a better place in life than 18-year-olds to start voting. If you think about being 18, many of them are starting a new job, maybe moving away for college, maybe having their first serious relationship. If we can start at 16, they’re in a much more stable part of their life. They’re still going to school, they’re still living with their family, there’s no major change going on. That’s a great time to change your habits, and voting is a habit you need to build early on in order to have that endure for the rest of your life.
Howard: That is Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. She is the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. She was speaking with us about two proposals on the table at the state and federal level that would lower the voting age to 16. This is WGBH's All Things Considered.