For years, turning 16 has been a rite of passage marked by getting a driver’s license. In Takoma Park, Md., teenagers can soon start marking the occasion with something else: a voter registration card.
Next month, Takoma Park residents as young as 16 will be able to cast ballots in municipal elections, thanks to a change approved by the city council earlier this spring. (The voting age for state and federal elections is still 18.)
Officials hope that getting people involved in local government at a younger age will encourage them to stay more engaged throughout their life. As in most cities, turnout for local elections in Takoma Park is very low, around 20 to 40 percent, says council member Tim Male, who led the push for the change. “It’s so hard to get turnout in local elections anyway.”
The new policy also addresses a challenge that’s common among young voters: Eighteen isn’t a particularly convenient age to earn the right to vote. It’s a time when people are often moving away from home, going to college, or both. That means registration and voting require lots of paperwork, like change-of-address forms and requests for absentee ballots. Sixteen-year-olds generally have more stable addresses—their parents’ homes.
The youth vote was one of several reforms that the city of 17,000, located just outside Washington, D.C., recently passed in an effort to increase turnout. Early voting will now be available in every election, as will same-day registration. The city also now requires apartment buildings to give access to candidates who want to campaign door-to-door within the building.
But not all residents like the new policy. Some think teens will simply vote the same way as their parents. Others are convinced teens will pointedly vote the opposite of their parents. Male says critics were fixated on the idea that 16- and 17-year-olds are too immature to vote.
Takoma Park has a long history of trying new innovations in election policy. Twenty years ago, it gave noncitizens the right to vote in its elections. It was the first community to use a new electronic voting system called Scantegrity, which lets voters and election officials go online to verify that a vote was properly recorded. And it’s one of the few cities in America to have instant-runoff voting, whereby voters rank their candidates instead of picking just one.
Male notes that in about 20 other states, 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in primary elections if they’ll turn 18 by Election Day. If a 17-year-old can vote for president, he reasons, why shouldn’t a 16-year-old be able to vote for mayor? Internationally, the voting age in most places is 18, although Austria, Brazil and Switzerland allow 16-year-olds to vote in some cases.
Male says he’s spoken with several state and local lawmakers across the country in the wake of the change. “You can either believe city government is the place to try new things, or you can believe we’re the last place that should adopt new things,” Male says. Clearly, Takoma Park believes it’s the former.