Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Voting rights’ next frontier: 16 year-olds?

REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot
Rep. Keith Ellison says he is frequently impressed by the knowledge of high school students, adding that they sometimes know more about the issues than adults.

In most U.S. states, a typical 16-year-old can drive a car, get married, hold a job and pay taxes on the income they earn from that job. Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison believes there’s another thing 16-year-olds should be allowed to do: vote.

Rep. Keith Ellison

Last week, Ellison tweeted, “I think the voting age should be lowered to 16. What do you think?” It wasn’t the first time he had expressed his view about the voting age; he did so in 2012, also on Twitter.

Speaking with MinnPost last week, Ellison says he was inspired to take up the cause a few years ago, recalling a visit with high school students in Minneapolis. “One of the students said to me, ‘How come we can’t vote? We pay sales tax and payroll tax.’ I said, it makes a lot of sense to me. What could go wrong if 16-year-olds could vote? A lot could go right.” Continued visits with high school students have shored up that point of view: Ellison says he is frequently impressed by the knowledge of high school students, adding that they sometimes know more about the issues than adults.

It’s hardly common for federal-level officeholders to push for lowering the voting age; Ellison mentioned some state legislators who share his stance, but not any members of Congress. But supporting a policy like this is characteristic of the five-term congressman from Minneapolis, who is a vocal advocate for voting rights and has supported an array of policies aimed at expanding the franchise. In the past few months, Ellison has introduced a get-out-the-vote initiative, entitled Voters First, and he has also sponsored legislation that would establish same-day voter registration and ban voter ID laws nationwide.

Who would benefit?

Some say that lowering the voting age, like other turnout-boosting practices, will disproportionately benefit Democratic and progressive candidates at the ballot box. Eric Ostermeier, who studies politics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has researched these kinds of get-out-the-vote policies, and says the raw numbers back up the Democratic advantage.

Roughly eight to nine million people would be eligible to vote if the minimum age were lowered to 16. According to Ostermeier, Americans aged 18 to 24 disproportionately support and identify with Democrats over Republicans. Forty to 50 percent of this demographic identifies as Democratic, a third identifies as independent, and about 20 percent are Republican. If what Ellison is proposing becomes law, he says, “it would be a boon to Democrats.”

Ellison disagrees with that line of thinking, saying that young people are ideologically diverse and often support conservative viewpoints. He also brought up the practice of same-day voter registration, a “progressive” measure that Minnesota has had in place for decades. “They think it will help Democrats … well, in Minnesota, we’ve had Republican governors, independent governors, Republican governors,” Ellison says.

Slim chances

Regardless of whom it would help — if anyone — most observers believe a lowering of the voting age is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Doing so nationwide would require an amendment to the Constitution. That happened in 1971, when Congress ratified an amendment to lower the voting age to 18, largely in response to the influential student activist movement of the 1960s.

So far, states and local governments have tested the waters on younger voting ages to some degree. Nineteen states allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the date of a general election to vote in primary contests for federal or gubernatorial elections. In Minnesota, these 17-year-olds may caucus for presidential contests, but cannot participate in any others.

Some cities have extended full local voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds. Takoma Park, a Maryland suburb of Washington, instituted voting for 16- and 17-year-olds in municipal elections in 2013. The new voters voted at twice the rate of people over the age of 18 — which seemingly runs counter to the idea that lowering the voting age wouldn’t make much of a dent in turnout.

Minnesota could independently lower the voting age in nonfederal races if voters approved an amendment to the state constitution. Ryan Furlong, spokesman for Secretary of State Steve Simon, says that the secretary “supports existing law that requires a U.S. citizen to be at least 18 years old on Election Day to vote, but [he] is always open to exploring ways we can increase civic engagement with young Minnesotans.”

Ellison did not mention any specific action he would take on the voting age, saying instead that it would require a “movement” on the part of teenagers.

“You create a constituency if you have the vote,” he said. “People are very concerned about women, black people, labor, business … but there’s no concern about the teenage vote. If they can vote, we have to be concerned.”

“Sixteen-year-old students need to raise their voices,” Ellison said. “A lot of people beyond [them] could benefit from their vote.”

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 09/08/2015 - 09:44 am.

    Scotland did it

    For their independence vote. Apparently a few other countries allow it as well:–and-17-year-olds-where-else-outside-scotland

    It’s an interesting idea and not one I’d given a lot of thought to.

  2. Submitted by mike schoonover on 09/08/2015 - 10:07 am.

    it seems legit.

    for a minute i thought this was a Phyllis Kahn article. although one can make a case for 16 year old’s if they are actually working i am hard pressed to come up with any compelling reason to do so.its not that i am worried they would all vote democratic most likely. as i see it they will not only vote way left of center and have there political views lock stepped with the teachers unions agenda.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/08/2015 - 11:04 am.

      If you’re not a liberal at 18 you have no heart

      But if you’re not a conservative at 30 you have no brain.

      Raise the voting age to 30 and watch who complains.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 09/08/2015 - 03:52 pm.

        Well, EVERYONE should complain.

        If you’re old enough to go fight and die for your country, you should have a say in its leadership. If you’re actually the veteran that you claim to be, I’m a bit surprised at your attitude, even in spite of the meaningless bumper sticker rhetoric.

  3. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 09/08/2015 - 10:40 am.


    Other than getting married, a robot can do all of the above. And I am not so sure that a sixteen year old kids should be able to get a marriage license. I respect Mr, Ellison, but I respectfully disagree.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/08/2015 - 10:48 am.

    Yin and Yang

    Most of the kids I had in class hadn’t lived long enough, and didn’t know enough about their society’s past, to have a meaningful sense of history. That strikes me as something valuable if casting an “educated” vote is considered important. They were often skeptical of accepted wisdom, which is not a bad thing, necessarily, but Mr. Schoonover’s concern seems vastly overblown. Most of my students over the years were middle-of-the-road types. A few were pretty far left, and a few were pretty far right.

    Mostly, they reflected the political prejudices of their parents, whatever those prejudices happened to be. In some cases, the kids were in the midst of their “active rebellion” phase of adolescence, and worked hard to be the *opposite* of whatever their parents tried to tell them about politics, but for the most part, while there was some generalized rhetoric about being “conservative” or “liberal,” the kids with whom I interacted over the years were pretty much “centrist” when pinned down about specific policy choices. Beyond that, Mr. Schoonover’s suggestion that 16-year-olds would be in political lockstep with the alleged “teachers union agenda” is laughable.

  5. Submitted by John Edwards on 09/08/2015 - 11:17 am.

    The left’s anti-Michele Bachmann

    I totally agree with Mr. Ellison. I think his idea should be extended so that only people who have a tax burden should be allowed to vote. It is great to see our representative from the state’s most liberal district reaching across the aisle with a brilliant idea.

  6. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/08/2015 - 11:18 am.

    Do we

    really need people voting based on what is cool, hip, hot, rad, or epic? Kids are more mature now days in many ways but are not always the most educated (neither are some adults) when it comes to politics. Sounds like a not so good idea to me.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 09/09/2015 - 12:16 pm.

      Voter Preferences

      How does that differ from the older voting populace? A lot of people go to the polls knowing little or nothing about candidates. As an election judge for over twenty years I’ve seen it time and again with people who walk in and have no idea even who’s on the ballet, let alone what their position is on issues.

      A fair number of adults vote based on who sounds or looks presidential, which I find is no more vapid than your average sixteen year old. And if you get below the presidential and governor’s races, many people don’t even know who represents them.

      That begs the question: is it the teenagers who are uniformed or the populace in general?

      • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/10/2015 - 10:57 am.


        “How does that differ from the older voting populace?” Because most youth would likely base their vote on who they think is cool while most older folks would never ever base it on that. The older voters may know very little or nothing about the candidates but would still never base their vote on who they think is cool. I think there are significant amounts of both young and older uninformed voters but wisdom does come with age (not to say some younger folks are not wise beyond their years).

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/10/2015 - 04:19 pm.

          “[M]ost older folks would never ever base their vote . . .

          . . . on who they think is cool.”

          Two words for you: Donald Trump.

          If you prefer–Jesse Ventura.

          What is the difference between being merely “uninformed” and voting based on who you think is “cool,” as the kids would say? I’m not a supporter of extending the franchise to 16-year olds, but saying that they lack the judgment of their elders is pretty thin soup for opposing the idea.

          • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 09/11/2015 - 11:22 am.

            lack of judgement

            I’d say the main difference would be the amount of each group that lacks proper judgment. I’d wager it’s a tad higher in 16 year olds (while still a healthy percentage of older folks).

  7. Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 09/08/2015 - 12:07 pm.

    DFL lets 16 year olds caucus

    They can vote on and run for party leadership and resolutions.

    They can’t vote for President, nor can they become delegates to conventions.

  8. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 09/08/2015 - 01:07 pm.


    We are amazingly inconsistent in how we approach what society allows young people to do. Want to drink alcohol, wait until you are 21. Want to serve in the military, 18 is fine. Same with legally using tobacco. Rent a hotel room, depends. Be tried as an adult in a criminal proceeding, hey 13 might be fine in some states.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 09/09/2015 - 12:17 pm.

      Drinking Age

      Actually the drinking age should be bumped up to 25, which is when most people’s frontal lobes finish developing. That would make a lot more sense than the arbitrary 18 or 21.

  9. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 09/08/2015 - 04:37 pm.


    I have to question whether most 16 year old’s have the knowledge and maturity (seriously). Of course, I ask the same question about Trump supporters (almost as seriously).

    As to limiting to those with a tax burden, “been there / done that” more or less. When only white, male, landowners could vote.

  10. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 09/08/2015 - 05:29 pm.

    Family voting tradition

    I recently read an article about the lower participation rates of young voters, which suggested that if the voting age were lowered to 16, teenagers would likely be initiated into voting by their parents or schools. They’d have someone to show them the process and explain how things work. As is, they begin voting at 18, when many are starting college or full-time work, learning to live on their own and going through that big transition, and voting is just one more thing to figure out. So it seems reasonable to me that earlier voting could increase participation.

    Whether I’d agree with 16-year-olds’ various choices or criteria, I don’t know—of course they are not homogeneous, as Ellison points out. I teach college students and I have seen a fair spread of political inclinations. But regardless of their views, I think it’s a mistake to write off teenagers as silly or unserious. When given responsibility I think they rise to the occasion more often than not.

  11. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/08/2015 - 05:42 pm.

    Perhaps we should cap the voting age.

    “Ellison says he is frequently impressed by the knowledge of high school students, adding that they sometimes know more about the issues than adults.”

    Jokes aside, the evidence is pretty clear that young men’s and women’s critical faculties don’t fully mature until well into their twenties. As a member of the last generation that had to wait for age 21 to vote, I think the move to 18 was a mistake. But then, I keep thinking some day we’ll have an informed electorate, one not swayed by slogans and the type of fertilizer found in feedlots.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/09/2015 - 09:35 am.

    Well, why don’t we restore voting rights first..

    16? Whatever. First let’s go back and repeal all the ALEC inspired voter restriction laws that were passed in the last five years. And then let’s enact basic procedures like electronic poll records, vote by mail, etc. so the folks who already supposedly have the right to vote can cast a vote. THEN let’s worry about whether or a 16 year old should be able to vote.

  13. Submitted by Sharon Fortunak on 09/13/2015 - 09:03 am.

    No! to voting at age 16

    I say ‘No’ to voting at age 16. Too many people are sleep deprived and too busy as it is. Teens need time to relax. Voting would be just one more chore, including being on the over-crowded roads driving to voting stations, creating more air pollution. Granted, there are many knowledgeable, responsible teens. Lets give them time/space to enjoy those precious teen years.

Leave a Reply