As thousands of students walk out of classrooms and onto the streets in protest, young people across the country are politically mobilizing.
However, many of the very students who led the estimated one million people across the country in the March for Our Lives campaign against gun violence cannot vote.
Some of those same teens are now working to change that.
Vote16 Illinois is a student-led organization established in August 2016 with more than 100 student members. Its goal is to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 in Illinois.
“So many kids are rising up, and they’re demanding change,” said Daviana Soberanis, a junior at Northside College Prep who is a field organizing chair and board member of Vote16 Illinois. “Kids especially want to have their voices heard.”
Takoma Park, Maryland, was the first U.S. city to lower the voting age to 16, in 2013. During the first election it held when 16-year-olds were allowed to cast ballots, 17 percent of eligible minors voted. That was double the percentage of voters 18 and older that turned out, although the election had no contested races or referendums.
Since then, Huntsville, Alabama, and Greenbelt, Maryland, have followed suit. Berkeley, California, has given 16-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections. And Washington, D.C., is considering giving 16-year-olds the right to vote for president.
Illinois state rep Kelly Cassidy supports letting 16-year-olds vote and is working with Vote16 Illinois on strategies to get the voting age lowered.
“We trust kids at 16 alone behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound vehicle on the road,” said John Pearl, Cassidy’s chief of staff. “I mean, at some point you have to realize that 18 is extremely arbitrary. . . . It’s not like when you turn 18 you automatically have a serious increase in understanding of political knowledge.”
In Illinois, giving 16-year-olds the right to vote would require a change to the Illinois Constitution, which was amended in 1988 to lower the minimum voting age to 18.
The constitution also requires that voting laws be consistent across the state. Vote16 Illinois is working with lawmakers to introduce legislation next year to modify the constitution to allow municipalities with more than 25,000 people—making them governed by home rule—to lower the voting age.
“What they are talking about really is allowing municipalities to make that choice on their own. Currently, election law in Illinois is incredibly convoluted, which makes this more difficult,” Pearl said.
Vote16 Illinois has also been working with Chicago and suburban officials. The group is currently pushing for nonbinding referendums and resolutions across the state to demonstrate support for lowering the voting age.
Alderman Harry Osterman said he supports Vote16 Illinois and might introduce a nonbinding resolution to City Council, although he hasn’t drafted anything yet. North-suburban Wilmette is also considering doing the same thing, Vote16 Illinois said.
Still, nationally, the move to lower the voting age faces opposition from those who have questioned whether 16-year-olds have the mental maturity to vote responsibly.
“People always say, ‘You know you’re 16. What do you know? You can’t do a lot of things. Why do you think that you should be able to vote?'” said Pooja Patel, 17, political outreach chair and board member at Vote16 Illinois.
When it comes to the intellectual capacity of teenagers, researchers describe two types of cognitive abilities recognized by psychologists: “cold” and “hot.”
Cold cognitive abilities help people make logical, individualized decisions. These cognitive abilities are in place by age 16, and are key to being able to vote, according to a study published in 2009 by the American Psychological Association.
Meanwhile, hot cognitive abilities govern how a person reacts in emotional and stressful situations. These cognitive abilities do not mature until the mid-twenties, according to a study published in the journal Developmental Science. Many argue hot cognitive abilities are not needed during voting, but others disagree, including Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. He says such issues play a huge role in voting decisions. But either way, 16- and 18-year-olds both fall short of mature hot cognition, researchers say.
Advocates in favor of lowering the voting age also say the current system means many teens are voting in their first election at 18, a time of major transition. It comes as many teens are finishing high school and possibly going to college in a different city than their hometown.
“Many 18-year-olds are in the middle of their move for the first time away from home,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which does research on youth and their potential contribution to democracy.
Many college students have to either quickly familiarize themselves with the voting process in a new city or state or navigate absentee voting back home. College students could see their financial aid status change depending on where they are registered. If they vote absentee, that could hurt their efforts to get in-state tuition, for example.
“So if you think about adapting to a new environment, whether you’re going to college or not, and then being asked to do all this stuff: whether you’re eligible, where you can vote, are you going to lose your financial status?” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “I can see why they don’t think it’s necessarily worth their time.”
One difficulty of the whole process is just how long it will take to see any change. Pearl and Cassidy have been working with Vote16 Illinois for enough time that the original students who approached him have turned 18 and aged out of the program.
Although any change wouldn’t take effect for several years, the students urged those in favor of lowering the age not to get frustrated.
“From other legislatures I’ve heard this is not a 50-year project. This is like a five-year project,” Soberanis said. “They think feasibly five years seems like a good enough time frame. It seems like a long time, but it makes total sense.”