At Saturdays March for Our Lives protest in Washington, Parkland survivor Delaney Tarr warned that politicians who resist gun-control measures would soon be out of a job. They know what is coming, the 17-year-old Tarr declared. We will vote them out.
The crowd shouted Vote them out, which became one of the key rallying cries of afternoon. For the past few decades, however, Americans between 18 and 21 have voted less often than any other demographic. So the real issue, pundits said, was whether these kids will go to the polls when they reach voting age.
But Ive got a different question: Why cant they vote already?
At least 20 countries allow people to vote before theyre 18. And so do a handful of cities in the United States, where 16- and 17-year-olds can cast ballots in municipal elections.
And guess what? In every case weve been able to document, the newly enfranchised teenagers have voted at higher rate than first-time voters do at age 18. In fact, 16- and 17-year-olds in Takoma Park, Maryland which gave them the ballot in 2013 voted at rates two to three times higher than all registered voters in the next two elections.
Nobody is sure why. One reason might be that 16- and 17-year-olds have more free time than 18-year-olds, who are entering the workforce or going off to college and often across state lines, which adds another complication. In a 2014 survey, 18-year-olds cited being too busy as a major reason for not voting.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds generally still live at home. And theyre also almost all in school, where unsurprisingly teachers and students report that kids who can vote are also more engaged and informed.
It made you feel that much more connected to political candidates, one Takoma Park student noted in 2016. Lowering the voting age is the first step in showing young people that they have to be involved.
Many of them already are, even without the vote. According to the 2006 Civic and Political Health Survey, which polled Americans between 15 and 25, 16- and 17-year-olds know as much or more about politics as their older peers. Theyre also just as likely to have contacted a public official, another mark of engaged citizenship.
So enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds would hardly add to our already large stock of ignorant voters, as skeptics often charge. But since younger people shade to the left, the new voters would be more likely to support a range of liberal causes including, yes, gun control.
And theyd also be more willing to support education, which needs all the help it can get. Its hard to imagine now, but America used to lead the world in its commitment to educating all of its citizens. As the average age of our population has climbed, however, graying baby boomers have increasingly rejected tax hikes to fund schools and colleges.
All the more reason to give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, who are most directly affected by these decisions. If elected officials knew that high school students could vote, theyd have to think twice before they slashed teacher salaries or eliminated music, art and other frills.
Lowering the national voting age would require a constitutional amendment, of course, which is a highly cumbersome process. But it happened back in 1971, when the voting age became 18, so we know it can be done. And in the meantime, nothing prevents local jurisdictions from enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds in whatever way they want.
In 2016, for example, Berkeley, Calif., lowered its voting age to 16 for school board elections. That acknowledged teenagers special stake in educational issues. Who knows more about what goes on in schools than the students? So why shouldnt they be able to vote about schools, too?
If students in Pennridge, Penn., could vote for their local school board, it might not have given 225 of them a Saturday detention for participating in the national anti-gun walkout on March 14. The detention sparked a protest of its own, as students gathered outside their high school in solidarity with the Pennridge 225.
But will anyone listen to them, come election time? Its not enough for kids to make speeches and signs, as they did around the country on Saturday. Until they can cast ballots, too, people with power can continue to ignore them. Vote them out is a great slogan, to be sure. But it only works when you actually have the vote.
Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.