If you're old enough to drive, are you old enough to vote?
You soon will be if you live in Takoma Park, Md. The famously progressive suburb of Washington, D.C., has just extended voting rights in municipal elections to 16- and 17-year-olds.
Takoma Park was the first city in the country to take such a step, but its action is part of a larger trend toward letting people vote earlier.
"We're not the first community to talk about the idea, and I doubt we'll be the last to adopt it," says City Councilman Tim Male, a co-sponsor of the measure that was passed Monday.
The Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday held a hearing on the question of allowing municipalities to extend the franchise to citizens younger than 18, as the Lowell City Council has twice attempted to do.
"Our elected officials represent those who can vote," says Alex Koroknay-Palicz, a former executive director of the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA) and a recent transplant to Takoma Park. "Those under the voting age have a lot at stake in this country but have never been represented."
A dozen states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, as long as they will turn 18 in time for the general election. An additional 14 states allow citizens to register to vote prior to turning 18.
The voting age itself has been lowered to 16 in a number of countries, most recently Argentina last fall. Northern Ireland and Scotland have been debating the question as well.
Male, the Takoma Park city councilman, says research from abroad suggests that teens make good voters, in terms of turnout. The fact that turnout rates among the young are typically low, however, has also been embraced as an argument for lowering the voting age.
"The more opportunity we have to introduce young people to the voting process, the more likely it is that they'll be lifetime voters," says Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, which encourages voting among the young.
Koroknay-Palicz says that 16 may not be the perfect age, but that it makes sense. People who have reached that age are more likely to work, pay taxes and drive than, say, 14-year-olds.
Similar logic led to the adoption of the 26th Amendment in 1971 that set the age at 18. If 18 was old enough to fight and die in Vietnam, went the argument, it was old enough to vote.
Currently, a number of groups are promoting the idea of lowering the voting age, but not so much by way of organized opposition.
Still, when bills pop up in cities, public officials have sometimes been skeptical, questioning the wisdom and common sense of teenagers. Often, they recall their own foolishness at that age.
But while there are always questions about picking the right cutoff for various activities — and the age differs at which you can drive, enlist in the armed services and legally drink alcohol — voting is something younger teenagers should be able to handle, says Laurence Steinberg, an expert in adolescent brain development.
"Adolescents are probably just as good as adults at really taking information and making a logical decision about it," says Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University. "That doesn't mean they'll always do it logically, but neither do adults."