Ayanna Pressley Is Right: 16-Year-Olds Deserve the Right to Vote | Opinion

For our democracy to function as it should, we need to encourage more Americans—from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and age groups—to vote in local and federal elections.

This imperative is front and center as we approach another Election Day here in Virginia and across the country.

Over the course of our 400-year history, we have seen a greater number of individuals access this fundamental right, advancing our nation further and further toward the ideal set forth by our founders. Yet, in recent years, much has been made of the apparent fragility of American representative democracy. Pundits and armchair commentators of all political persuasions complain about notoriously low voter turnout, decrying large segments of the voting public as apathetic, uninformed or even illegitimate.

Still, relatively few organizations and legislators have recommended the bold solutions needed to increase the representativeness of our electorate.

Perhaps the most compelling idea, and the most democratic in spirit, is a 2018 proposal, from U.S. Representative Ayana Pressley of Massachusetts, to lower the voting age in federal elections to 16. Unsurprisingly, Pressley's amendment to a voting rights bill fell flat on the House floor.

Setting aside legislators' risk-averse decision-making and political calculations, the consensus was that 16-year-olds cannot reasonably contribute to the electoral process.

Even though 16 is the age when many teens can realize the rights and responsibilities of adulthood (such as driving and full employment), we say they somehow lack the maturity and experience to make informed choices at the ballot box. Opponents of the idea argue that 16-year-olds will just vote the same way their parents do.

The thing is, we don't really have a good reason not to allow 16-year-olds to vote. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite—that enfranchising 16-year-olds would be good for them and good for our democracy.

The skeptical attitude toward the next generation is especially baffling when we see teens like Greta Thunberg, or the students from Parkland, Florida, consistently demonstrate independent thought, deep understanding, clear convictions, and tremendous maturity and poise in the national and international limelight (even amid jarring criticism and judgment from adults).

These exceptional young people are far more informed than the average adult when it comes to key issues of our time and, of course, are far more engaged than many of their peers. Never mind that the claims about young people being ill-informed and inexperienced essentially reprise the same complaints that were made when women and African Americans sought suffrage. Never mind the fact that a fair number of 16-year-olds are taxpayers who have no say in the election of the officials who determine how their tax dollars are spent. Never mind that the decisions those officials make are affecting the day-to-day lives of 16-year-olds today. In fact, these 16-year-olds will be living with the consequences of those decisions for far longer than today's lawmakers and vast majority of the current electorate.

Science tells us that adolescents are primed to demonstrate the level of engagement we hope to see in the voting public. A recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine shows that adolescents have an increased capacity to exhibit complex reasoning, strategic problem-solving skills and use of evidence to make significant decisions. Adolescents also have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and risk, both of which are essential to participating, and engaging, in a healthy electoral process and discourse.

We know from this same research that there is no better way to promote sustained civic engagement than to nurture it earlier in our teens' lives. The adolescent years represent a critical period of identity formation, presenting us with an opportunity to ensure a new generation of voters see themselves as engaged participants in our democracy.

March for Our Lives protest
People hold their hands up during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, in Seattle, Washington. Lindsey Wasson/Getty

At the same time, the adolescent brain is actively making new neural connections, meaning that habits formed during these years can be long lasting. Imagine the positive impact on our society if voting was a habit for the next generation.

Some communities have already had success in trusting the potential of our adolescents—and thereby increasing voter turnout and representation—by lowering the voting age to 16 in their local elections. Takoma Park, Maryland, for example, extended the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in 2013. Over the ensuing six years, the city saw a voter turnout rate among this age group that nearly doubled that of the electorate age 18 and older.

The notion that adolescents are incapable of exercising the sober judgment needed to place a vote reflects a broader, misguided prejudice against young people that prevents initiatives like the one in Takoma Park from taking root in jurisdictions across the country. This prejudice is not a sound basis for continuing to deny adolescents a say in our democracy—and constraining the promise of our representative democracy for years to come.

It is time to enfranchise our 16-year-olds.

Nancy Deutsch is the director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development's Youth-Nex Center, which is leading a national conference in November on how to engage young people on matters of democracy, moral reasoning and social justice.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.