It's Been 50 Years Since the Voting Age Was Lowered. It's Time to Do it Again | Opinion

Fifty years ago, the federal voting age was lowered from age 21 to age 18. After decades of activism by young people across the political aisle. In 1971, Congress agreed that people who can be drafted for war should also be able to have a say in who represents them, thereby ratifying the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Half a century later, it's hard to deny that young people are profoundly affected by laws, leaders and policies. It's time to recognize this reality, give teenagers a say in their futures and lower the voting age again.

Eighteen years old is not some magical marker of reasoning skills. In fact, research suggests that chronological age in general is a very poor signal of somebody's maturity. Children as young as 12 can make informed decisions about their future, and brain maturation is a gradual process that starts in utero and continues well into what we call adulthood.

Human development is messy, and there is no clear way to measure maturity. What should constitute "enough" responsibility, knowledge, or reasoning skills to vote? In the past, our country has claimed that false metrics like supposed-literacy tests were "objective" measures that should be used to determine who can vote, but in practice they were used to systematically deny African Americans, immigrants and poor people their rights and autonomy. Using chronological age as a metric for maturity is, happily, not racist, but it's still not a true measure of anything akin to maturity.

The problem is that chronological age is not actually a particularly meaningful gauge of where a person is in their life course. Gerontologists know this well; they often quantify age through biological markers (like DNA methylation) or even subjective measures (like where you would place yourself on a line between birth and death) because these factors predict outcomes like life expectancy and health more strongly than chronological age. I know that I can easily point to a 14-year-old in my life who acts like an adult, and at the same time, a 50-year-old who acts like a child.

So why 18 years? What's so special about a person who has lived 6574 days, rather than 6573? Nothing, really, except that our society decided that 18 years seemed like a reasonable marker of adulthood. However, we also decided that 16 is mature enough to drive or give consent for sex, and 21 is the magic number for responsible consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

In some places in the world, such as the U.K., Indonesia, Cuba and Vietnam, 16 years is the age of legal adulthood and confers the right to enter contracts, marry and often, vote. Many more countries offer voting rights to legal minors, including Brazil, Argentina, Austria and Greece. If anything, the fact that we in the U.S. see 18-year-olds as suddenly mature is likely as much a product of the fact that we let them vote, rather than a cause.

The focus on 18 is an example of what I, a sociologist who studies the cultural meanings of age, call chronological essentialism; that is, when we believe that the number of years since a person was born is the most accurate depiction of how mature they are. This belief is dominant in our culture, but it is just that: a belief.

Voting booths in New York City.
Voting booths in New York City. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Chronological age only seems universal and objective because Western societies have agreed to measure time in a certain way and use that to keep track of their citizens. It's only in the last century that most governments around the world have attempted to collect reliable and universal birth records, and therefore have documentation of people's chronological ages. In the past, withholding knowledge of birthdays was a way that our country denied some people, such as those enslaved, personhood. As Frederick Douglass described, "I have no accurate knowledge of my age. ... [My master] deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit."

Today, birthdates are used to decide who gets privileges and who is denied rights: You have to be older than 65 to sign up for Medicare, younger than 26 to be on your parents' health insurance, over 12 (or older, depending on the state) to be tried in an adult criminal court, over 5 to enter elementary school and over 63 to get a lifetime discount to the National Parks. These numbers are supposed to be signals of something (responsibility, dependency, health, etc.), but the very act of using public policy to draw these magical lines is what gives age its meaning in society.

Of course, the number of years spent on the planet is associated with developmental and social processes that may be important for responsible voting behavior. Young children do not have as developed an ability to plan for the future as do older children or adults and can be particularly powerless in the face of their adult caregivers, so their vote may not be their own. Until we come up with a better answer to the question of what "maturity" really means, a voting age still makes the most sense. However, there's no good reason it should be 18.

Critics of lowering the voting age, including the California Republican Party and much of Congress, claim that 17-year-olds shouldn't be able to vote because they are not yet mature adults. But this argument is not evidence-based. A few months' or years' difference is just not that strong a predictor of political maturity. For conservatives, this may also be an argument of convenience, given that young people in America are less white and more likely to vote for progressive candidates.

Just as the 26th Amendment recognized that people who are affected by public policy (the war draft, at the time) should be able to vote, it's time for us to recognize that young people are profoundly shaped by the policies people over 18 create, be them about education, labor, housing, welfare, transportation, climate change, or urban development. Research shows that 12-year-olds can make well-reasoned medical decisions; why not let them vote? If that seems too radical, we could at least meet halfway. A voting age of 15 would be reasonable both scientifically and politically.

Seventeen states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, and several cities in Maryland and California allow 16-year-olds the right to vote in local elections. Still, it's still difficult to convince voters that teenagers are equally capable. Just as the 26th Amendment faced significant push-back throughout the 1960s and before, a 2020 proposition in California aimed at lowering the voting age by just six months was rejected by voters who cited the fundamental immaturity of 17-and-a-half-year-olds.

Eighteen years old isn't a fundamental marker of anything other than what we have made it. People drew that line in the sand; we now have the responsibility to move it.

Sasha Shen Johfre is a PhD candidate in sociology at Stanford University, and the Eisner Foundation Fellow in Intergenerational Relationships at the Stanford Center on Longevity. She is also a 2020-2021 Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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