Opinion: Let's give our 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in city elections

Young people in Boston have stepped up to the plate to play a critical role in our civic life. They organize community meetings, speak at public hearings, knock on doors for political candidates, and continue to hold elected officials accountable.

But when it comes to the most important aspect of civic life— voting— young people are excluded.  We must take steps to support youth civic engagement by granting 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in municipal elections. 

The conversation over who has the right to vote has been going on for as long as our country has been in existence. Women did not receive the right to vote until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920; BIPOC people did not fully receive voting rights until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and are still fighting laws designed to diminish their vote. Many states once set the voting age at 21; looking back, it seems arbitrary and restrictive to prevent 18, 19, and 20 year olds from voting. Similarly, there is not much in the way of justification for limiting voting to those 18 and older. Many 16 and 17 year olds in Boston pay income taxes but have no representation.

The Boston Public Schools budget is roughly a third of the city’s overall budget, but youth have no say in electing the mayor or city councillors who are tasked with proposing, overseeing, and approving the public schools budget.

Nationwide, far more government funding goes to support seniors than to support low-income children and youth; both groups need financial help, but only one has a vote.

The age of 18 may, in fact, be one of the least ideal times to have to register to vote and form a new civic habit. Many 18 year olds are moving away, living in temporary or university housing, navigating their first job, and navigating many of the daunting adulthood “firsts.” Further, recent research indicates that if we can set our youth up to vote in the first three elections they’re eligible to vote in, they’ll be voters for life. Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to register to vote, with the help of a parent, a teacher, or other supports, and to debate with their peers the issues of a city they’ve grown up in and know well, means that we have a better chance of empowering our youth to form the habit of voting long-term. 

Although Boston has traditionally been the city to lead the nation, we would not be the first to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. Many states allow 17 year olds who will be 18 by the time of a general election to vote in the primary, while three municipalities in Maryland have lowered the voting age to 16.

Internationally, in places like Brazil and Austria, the voting age has also been lowered to 16. So far, these changes have had a positive effect on civic engagement.

In Takoma Park, Maryland, the first city to allow 16 year olds to cast a ballot, turnout rates among young people under 18 were nearly double the turnout rate of eligible voters 18 and up. In Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, young people aged 16 and 17 were allowed to weigh in on their country’s constitutional future and voted at a rate of 75 percent.

Boston should join in on the worldwide movement to enfranchise young people by allowing them to vote in municipal elections.

With new voting restriction laws popping up across the country, we have an opportunity in Boston to expand our voting base and create healthy civic engagement habits for young people.

Kenzie Bok represents District 8 on the Boston City Council and Julia Mejia is an at-large city councillor who lives in Dorchester.

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