Let 16-Year-Olds Vote in Local Elections

10th District Republican Council member Brian O'Neill is putting the finishing touches on his "Get Off My Lawn" platform for his 11th reelection campaign in Northeast Philadelphia, first banning food trucks from his entire district, and then endorsing the use of sonic waves to mess with teenagers' ears if they enter city parks after closing. 

Former City Commissioner candidate Jen Devor thinks politicians wouldn't get away with targeting teenagers like this if we lowered the voting age to let 16-year-olds vote in our municipal elections.

There are so many issues that impact the lives of teens in Philadelphia: public space, public education, school violence, a citywide curfew, and limited job opportunities over the summer months. I can’t help but wonder what our city would it be like if 16- and 17-year-old Philadelphians could vote in municipal elections.

Would they vote for representatives who allow aggressive policies that target millennials and Gen Z, like installing sonic devices at parks? I don’t think so.

Would elected officials be more inclined to better serve the next generation if young people voted? I bet they would.

Young people contribute to society in significant ways. At 16 and 17, you can obtain a driver’s license, be employed, and are expected to pay taxes. In fact, not allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote is a clear case of taxation without representation — one of the key principles that our country was founded on. Voting is our most basic civic duty and one of the most effective ways to influence society.

Devor goes on to make some good points about the long-term civic value of lowering the voting age for creating the next generation of Super Voters, since in the places (mostly in the DC region) that have lowered the voting age for local elections, high schoolers vote at higher rates than other groups. And there's good reason to believe that encouraging high schoolers to begin voting mid-way through high school helps them form stronger voting habits than starting during the post-graduation transition phase where they may be voting away from home for the first time.

One of the best arguments for lowering the voting age is simply that teenagers should have more political representation in the decisions that are made about them and the quality of the local public services they use. Local government is the layer that has the most impact on people's day-to-day lives, and it's the layer of government where elected officials are typically the most enthusiastic about restricting teenagers' rights and freedoms in various ways. 

While teens may not be experts on the nuances of federal and state governance—and to be fair, neither are most adult voters—they have as much expertise as anyone else about the quality of life in their neighborhoods, and have even more direct knowledge than most adults about the quality of the public education services they receive. While parents and teachers' political interests mostly align with the interests of students, they don't always precisely align, and students deserve to speak with their own voice in local elections. 

Another area of policy that would probably change if we lowered the voting age to 16 is transportation. Introducing a lot of non-drivers into the electorate with a strong interest in affordable and convenient ways of getting around without a car could help bring more political attention to the need for improvements to public transit service and the on-street bike network.

Lowering the voting age for local elections would almost certainly require a change to the state Election Code, which is usually a conversation ender given the difficultly of making good things happen for Philadelphia in Harrisburg, but the time is ripe for this discussion because state lawmakers are currently considering a raft of legislation aimed at expanding voting access. While they consider ways to expand how people can vote, they should also consider ways to expand who can vote. 

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