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Allow 16-year-olds to vote in town elections

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UPDATED May 9: Sophie Shen, a junior at Arlington High School, is the proponent of Article 22, which seeks to lower the voting age for town elections. [The meeting voted to approve the proposal, according to the town's tracker.]

Article 22, heard Wednesday, May 8, in Town Meeting, aims to lower the voting age to 16 for town elections. The plan is to place 16- and 17-year-olds on a separate voter list so that they can vote for Select Board, Town Meeting and ballot questions. They would register as adult voters once they turn 18. Not only will this help to improve our democracy, but it will also empower the future leaders of our town, country and world. As any change to election law in Massachusetts requires ratification from the state, this particular article is a home-rule petition.

Lowering the voting age can catalyze increased voter turnout. According to Alexander Coppock and Donald Green of Columbia University, voting is a habit. When a person votes in one election, they are more likely to vote in the next. This is especially crucial for young people. People 18 to 29 tend not to vote because of life changes that make it difficult to make it to the ballot box. If people are moving away for college or the workforce, their first opportunity to vote in person may not be until their mid-20s. Voter registration is tied to a permanent address, and without that voting habit already formed, voting absentee for a first election can be very difficult.

Ultimately, this means less representation for the youth vote, and there is weaker overall turnout. Lowering the voting age can combat this two-pronged problem. We see that in Austria (whose voting age is 16), 16-year-olds will vote when they are allowed to do so. Their voter turnout is comparable to older adults, likely because there aren’t those difficult life transitions. Furthermore, by building that voting muscle early, we prepare Arlington youth to be some of the most educated voters. 

Tufts University has conducted extensive studiesTufts University has conducted extensive studies on voter education. They assert that young voters are more likely to look upon voting favorably and are more educated about elections when they are encouraged to vote while still in high school, and consistent voter education is far more difficult once people exit the compulsory schooling system.

Furthermore, another one of the study’s findings was that Black and Latinx voters are the least likely to be taught about registering to vote and encouraged to vote by their high school teachers. If we want to encourage young people to get to the ballot box and ensure that diverse voices are heard, one way to do that is by introducing voting earlier.

Besides improving our democracy, by expanding voting rights we can empower young people who are prepared to vote. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for what is known as “cold cognition,” and it develops at 15 years old (Click here and go to page 7). These cold-cognition skills, which involve abstract thinking, logical reasoning and deliberation, do not improve in later years, which is why 16 and 17-year-olds score about the same as older adults on political interest and understanding.

The youth-led peace movement during the Vietnam War and climate protests today demonstrate young interest in politics quite clearly. In a similar vein, society acknowledges that 16- and 17-year-olds are capable and responsible. By 16, we are given the responsibilities of safe driving, working a job, paying taxes, and in some cases, being tried as adults for serious crimes. If such adult responsibilities are conferred onto teenagers, then voting in town elections does not seem like a large bridge to cross. 

One final myth that can be dispelled is that lowering the voting age will simply provide an extra vote for adults with teenage children. In Scotland, whose voting age is 16In Scotland, whose voting age is 16, this is not true. Teens were as likely to vote the same as their parents as they were to vote differently. 

If we were to make moves to lower our voting age, we would not be alone. Massachusetts municipalities such as Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville have submitted home-rule petitions to lower the voting age already, and we also see statewide bills, such as H.686, co-written by Rep. Sean Garballey (D-Arlington), which would lower the municipal voting age for all towns in Massachusetts. 

Nationwide and worldwide, we also see municipalities and even whole countries that have made efforts to lower the voting age or have ratified a lower voting age already, such as Austria and Scotland, which were previously mentioned, as well as Brazil, Cuba and Norway, to name a few. 

It is my hope that Town Meeting will vote to pass this article. I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in my town’s democratic process, and I look forward to the day when we can welcome all 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Arlington’s local elections.


This opinion was published published Tuesday, May 7, 2024, and updated two days later.

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