Young adults are known for taking to the streets in protest. Now, there’s a youth-driven push to bring more of them to the ballot box.
Tyler Okeke, a 19-year-old activist, is among those who champion lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.
Currently, young adults gain the right to vote at 18, the same time they’re undergoing significant life transitions, said Okeke, a youth organizer with the nonprofit Power California and a student at the University of Chicago. He said young, newly enfranchised voters often postpone navigating the voting process to focus on employment, higher education and settling into new cities.
“If this wasn’t work that I was doing for years, I probably wouldn’t know the process of getting an absentee ballot to vote in a California election while I go to college in Chicago,” Okeke, who is originally from Los Angeles, told NPR’s Ailsa Chang on All Things Considered.
Okeke said 16-year-olds, in particular, are poised to translate their civic education into civic engagement. The U.S. history that students typically learn at that age, combined with the power to vote at the same time, he said, would create “lifelong, habitual voters.”
For decades, young people between 18 and 29 have voted in the lowest numbers of any age group.
During the 2018 midterm elections, however, the percentage of 18- to 29-year-old voters jumped to a historic high compared with previous midterms. Many in Generation Z, who were born in 1997 or later, were newly motivated by recent mass shootings to vote in an effort to reform gun policies.
Over the past few months, Gen Z activists have been a driving force in causes such as climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ rights. A new poll from Power California shows that 18- to 29-year-old voters in the state put “stopping police brutality against Black Americans” as their most important political issue. That came out ahead of the need for coronavirus aid, even though more than one-third of those surveyed said they are struggling to pay rent or buy basic needs.
If the voting age were lowered, it wouldn’t be the first time. The voting age was 21 before the 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971. At the time, young people argued that if they could be drafted to fight America’s wars at 18, their voices should also count in elections.
The idea of lowering the voting age has drawn some support, largely from Democrats. Although the effort failed, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., proposed an amendment to lower the national voting age to 16 in House Democrats’ voting overhaul bill last year.
Easing age limitations is on the California ballot this November. If passed, Proposition 18 would allow 17-year-olds, who will be 18 by the time of the following general election, to vote in primary and special elections. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., already allow such pre-18 voter participation.
And Americans of both major parties overwhelmingly oppose extending voting to 16- and 17-year-olds, according to a Hill-HarrisX poll. Opponents often argue that people at that age aren’t mature enough or don’t know enough to vote.
Okeke disagrees. Having grown up with the Internet, younger generations have greater access to information, well beyond the pages of a textbook, he said.
Armed with that information, youth are “getting frustrated” with their lack of political power, Okeke said, after “exhausting” the tools they do have, such as social media campaigning and protesting.
“When we look down the road, we don’t see a hopeful future. We don’t see a future where we’ll have access to clean water and clean air, and equitable schools,” he said. “Voting is just the logical next step in making sure that a generation — that is so passionate about change and is so deeply affected by the decisions that are being made now — that we are inserted into policy-making and have a say in our democracy.”
NPR’s Jonaki Mehta and Jolie Myers produced and edited the audio for this story.