The Push To Lower The Voting Age: Can 16-Year-Olds Be Trusted To Vote?

A birthday cake topped with candles that read “16” and a ballot. This represents the political voice that 16 and 17-year-olds would hold if Oregon lowered its voting age from 16 to 18. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.

“Why can I drive like an adult, pay taxes like an adult, have an abortion like an adult, be charged and sentenced like an adult; but I can’t vote like an adult?” asked Christian Bynum of the Oregon State Legislature in 2019. 

Bynum, who at the time was a student at La Salle High School and a youth advocate, was among dozens of Oregon student activists testifying in support of a bill known as the Joint Senate Resolution 22, or the Our Future, Our Vote Act. The bill was aimed at amending the Oregon Constitution to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 years old. If passed in the state legislature, it would go to a statewide vote on the 2020 ballot.

Our Future, Our Vote, however, never made it to the ballots of Oregon voters because it didn’t receive enough support to be passed in the legislature. Isabela Villarreal, the Policy and Communications Manager at NextUp, a local organization that seeks to amplify the voices of Oregon’s youth, explained the loss as sad, but “not a huge surprise.” She elaborated that it was a challenge to get enough support with “this being a newer issue, especially for a lot of legislators,” adding that “a lot of misinformation happens with this measure.” 

The reality that definitions of adulthood and maturity are culturally and legally varied often comes to light during the discussion of lowering the voting age. Aishiki Nag, a member of NextUp’s Youth Action Team and Tigard’s Youth City Councilor, points out the many ways in which 16 and 17-year-olds are already considered adults: “in Oregon, you can take care of your own medical care when you’re 16, but you don’t get to vote about what medical care you get.” Furthermore, “[you can] drive and [you] get to pay taxes— that’s taxation without representation, and a lot of people get tried [in court] as adults.” Aishiki’s points bring up the question of whether or not the age we assign to adulthood truly reflects the roles that 16 and 17-year-olds take on in our society. This perspective shifts the common narrative of lowering the voting age from being seen as a gift to teens, into the recognition of a basic right that is currently being denied of a tax paying, civically engaged, and in many cases highly vulnerable group of citizens. 

In contrast, opponents of lowering the voting age, such as former Oregon Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, point to rights that differentiate 16 and 17-year-olds from legal adults. “[16-year-olds] are too young to enlist in the military, too young to own firearms, too young to own property, too young to enter into legal contracts, and too young to get married.” While reading this quote, you may find yourself asking, ‘should the legal ability to possess a firearm, marry, or fight in the military dictate one’s voice in our democracy?’ Statements like these make visible the contrasting viewpoints that make this issue so divisive.

Difference in opinion may not be the only reason that the conversation to lower the voting age is continually dismissed, however. A common frustration expressed by youth activists leading this movement is misinformation and disregard for the voices of youth from media, and politicians Speaking at a webinar hosted by NextUp entitled: Lowering the Voting Age to 16 in Oregon! Amira, a former member of the of Vote16 Youth Advisory Board, and NextUp’s Youth Action Team, comments that a major barrier when advocating for lowering the voting age is “facing criticism for media appearances.” She recalls that after appearing on the TV network K2 she noticed that the comments were overwhelmingly “negative and mean, [people] calling us stupid and illogical and [saying] ‘don’t listen to these kids.’” Amira adds, “I didn’t take that personally, but it was still annoying because they weren’t really listening to what we had to say. They were just writing us off as teenagers.”

The movement to lower the voting age in Oregon was not deterred by the 2019 loss in the legislature. In 2021, NextUp helped introduce an additional measure for an amendment to the Oregon Constitution, but also pursued a new pathway to enact a similar change. “We introduced a measure to lower the voting age to 16 for school district elections, which wouldn’t be a constitutional amendment and would just have to pass through the legislature to become a law, which is obviously a much smaller lift than running a statewide ballot campaign,” says Villarreal. Allowing 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections has a precedent in Oakland, California as of 2020. Villarreal explains that lowering the voting age for school board elections is easier for many legislators to comprehend the logic behind: “if you’re a young person in high school, the people on your school board are directly making decisions about things that affect your everyday life and your schools. So to [legislators], the link is a lot clearer.” 

In 2023, NextUp has tentative plans to re-introduce a bill which would allow 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in Oregon school board elections. In preparation, they are hosting “informational and educational meetings to clear a lot of the popular myths that people have,” says Aishiki Nag, with the hopes of “getting an educated voter base.” Villarreal describes the current work surrounding the campaign as “important, to continue to do things like community education, as well as educate lawmakers on why this is an important measure.”

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