Washington, D.C. could become the first jurisdiction in the country to allow 16-year-olds to vote in federal elections, including the presidential election, if a bill before the city council is enacted.
The legislation was introduced Tuesday by Council Member Charles Allen, a Democrat who believes young voters are unfairly taxed without representation since many high school students work and are otherwise treated as adults. He also believes allowing 16-year-olds to vote — sophomores and juniors in high school — will encourage them to be more active in political causes they believe in.
“By enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds, we can bring our young people directly into the political process, lift their voices, and, hopefully, create engaged, lifelong voters,” he said.
Allen introduced similar legislation in 2015 and it never made it to a hearing. That was before the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the images of students taking their place on a national stage in the debate over gun control. Those students’ lives were directly impacted by the decisions of elected officials, and yet none of them can vote.
Allen already had the support of six other council members when he introduced the legislation Tuesday. Seven votes are needed to pass the bill and put it on the desk of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has already voiced support.
But even if the D.C. City Council passes the measure, it has a big roadblock to overcome in the United States Congress.
The District of Columbia Home Rule Act gives Congress the ability to review any legislation before it becomes law. This power is delegated to the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. D.C. has run into this issue before when the council has tried to pass controversial initiatives about guns and marijuana. In 2014, Congress blocked Initiative 71 which legalized minimum amounts of marijuana for personal use.
The ranking Democrat on the oversight committee has also voiced support. “The proper voting age is a state issue,” said Elijah Cummings of Maryland in a statement. “If the District of Columbia City Council passes and the mayor signs a bill on this issue, I will support D.C.’s right to home rule.”
The main argument made by opponents is that younger voters would be swayed by their parents' politics.
The Oversight Committee has had a long history of blocking D.C. laws, especially when Republicans are in control of Congress. If Democrats are able to retake the House in November, Cummings will chair the Oversight Committee and the District will have a much better chance at passing its agenda without being blocked by Congress.
It’s unclear if Congress would try to stop D.C. from lowering the voting age. D.C. votes overwhelmingly Democrat and allowing younger people in the city to vote is unlikely to change the fact that D.C.’s three electoral votes will inevitably end up in the hand of a Democratic presidential candidate.
But the nation’s capital is in a unique position to bring down the voting age as its city council serves as a municipal, county and state legislature all in one. Basically, it should be easier to get something like this done in D.C., since states have all those pesky legislators.
While D.C. would be the first jurisdiction to allow 16 year olds to vote in presidential elections, it would not be the first to enfranchise voters who are under the age of 18. Two other jurisdictions in the D.C. area have also toyed with enfranchising minors. In 2013, Takoma Park, Md. lowered the voting age for municipal elections followed by Hyattsville Md.
More recently the progressive bastion of Berkeley, Ca. brought the voting age down to 16 for school board elections.
According to the Brookings Institute, 55 percent of young voters aged 18-29 voted for Clinton while 37 percent voted for Trump. Younger people usually means more Democratic votes and the Republicans who control Congress may not want to put this idea in the heads of other legislative bodies.
The 26th amendment of the Constitution enacted in 1971 does not stop states from lowering the voting age below 18, but does explicitly say the age cannot be over 18.
The Judiciary and Public Safety Committee is waiting to hear the legislation until the stakeholders of the bill, the students, are out of school for the summer. In the fall Allen is hoping to see the full committee vote on his bill.
Cover image: Protesters pose with signs during March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)