Like getting your driver's license, or graduating from high school, taking part in the democratic process is another sign of growing up. But in Takoma Park, Md., teens will be reaching that milestone a bit earlier than kids in most communities, thanks to a change this year in the city's charter to allow residents ages 16 and older to vote in local elections.
Takoma Park Councilman Tim Male led the charge to lower the voting age as part of a larger set of voting reforms passed in April, including extending suffrage to former felons and instituting same-day registration. Male says lowering the voting age wasn't initially on his agenda, until he looked into similar reforms in Europe, where studies in Austria and Denmark have suggested positive outcomes from the change.
"What they found is that 16 and 17-year-olds show up to vote," Male says. "They understand the issues, at least as well as 18, 19, and 20-year-olds do. And then — for me at least — even more importantly, if you start them voting at 16 or 17 there's some evidence that they will keep voting when they get to 18, 19, and 20." In the U.S., that age group is notorious for low turnout.
So what concerns did people have about lowering the voting age? Male says that many were concerned the teens didn't have the maturity to vote, that they had bad judgment. "People talked about interest," he says. "Whether 16 and 17-year-olds would actually be interested in voting." But Male doesn't agree, and neither does 16-year-old Ben Miller, who was the first to be added to the voter rolls since the charter amendment.
"I don't know if maturity is the issue," he says. "It's really just about being informed. I think all of my friends are capable of assessing the candidates and seeing which ones align with their views." Miller doesn't buy the idea that 16-year-old brains aren't developed enough to understand politics.
But will teens turn out to vote? According to the City Clerk, more than 80 of Takoma Park's 16 or 17-year-olds are registered to vote — about a quarter of that population. And Councilman Male expects that number to rise on Election Day, as voters will now be able to register at their polling places.
So, what do the older residents of Takoma Park think of the idea of 16-year-old voters? Just down the street from the gelato shop where Ben Miller works, 48-year-old Mark Greiner said he was excited to see his city become the first in the country to make this change.
"This is the kind of community we're in," he says. "It really pleases me that we're in a place where civil discourse is really, really important. I'm excited about the process here, and I'm excited about the opportunity for young people."
Lauren Alexander, 31, is a little more cautious. She thinks her concerns are normal: "You're 16, you think you rule the world, but you don't really know anything, but you think you know everything."
But back in the gelato shop, Ben Miller isn't sympathetic to that argument. "I have plenty of friends who are more politically mature than probably the vast majority of Americans," he says. "I mean, the vast majority of people my age aren't. But in Takoma Park there are a lot of 16-year-olds who have their shit together, so to speak."
[Music: Fred Smith "Takoma Park" from Texas]