Unlikely Advocates Push To Give 16-Year-Olds A Vote — And A Voice Washington, D.C., residents pushing to enfranchise teens think their opinions matter and the move would boost voter participation. But some worry 16-year-olds aren't ready to cast ballots.
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Unlikely Advocates Push To Give 16-Year-Olds A Vote — And A Voice

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Unlikely Advocates Push To Give 16-Year-Olds A Vote — And A Voice

Unlikely Advocates Push To Give 16-Year-Olds A Vote — And A Voice

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Turning 16 years old is a big deal. In many states, it means being able to drive, pay taxes and work like an adult. Here in Washington, D.C., 16-year-olds could soon take on another responsibility - voting in a presidential election. Patrick Madden of member station WAMU has the story.

PATRICK MADDEN, BYLINE: Michelle Blackwell isn't your typical Washington politico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE BLACKWELL: (Singing) I can see got you geeking, Boy. You've been giving me that look for months. So tell me...

MADDEN: The 44-year-old is better known in the D.C. music scene as one of the top go-go singers around.

BLACKWELL: Go-go was one of the indigenous genres of music born right in this city.

MADDEN: But offstage, she's now helping lead the effort to make D.C. the first jurisdiction to let 16-year-olds vote in federal elections.

BLACKWELL: A lot of young people feel very powerless, and they don't feel that their voice matters. And that's part of the reason why there might be this absence of young participation as adults.

MADDEN: In the 2014 elections, voter turnout among people under age 30 hit its lowest level in 40 years. Blackwell believes by lowering the voting age to 16, when young people are still in school and before they leave for college or the military, more of them will pick up the voting habit. After a deadly shooting in D.C., she went to a community meeting. It was then that she realized 16-year-olds should have a voice in political debates.

BLACKWELL: When it came time for young people to speak, they actually had some really great ideas and some concerns that I felt were being dismissed. And at one point, one of the adults even took the microphone from one of the young people and started lecturing them.

MADDEN: Within weeks, she was working with city lawmakers on a bill. As it turns out, there's nothing in the Constitution that prevents cities or states from lowering the voting age, says Stanford law professor Nate Persily.

NATE PERSILY: It just prevents against discrimination with respect to the right to vote. So if a state wants to enfranchise 16 year olds, it has the power to do so.

MADDEN: Just next door to D.C. in neighboring Takoma Park, Md., 16-year-olds can already vote in local elections. Outside a skating rink, 16-year-old Cole Sebastian called casting a ballot a rite of passage.

COLE SEBASTIAN: Voting is always considered as this adult thing that only adults can do. And so I think people at my age, and me especially, are just more excited to grow up.

MADDEN: And the adults could probably learn from the 16-year-olds who voted at twice the rate as everyone else in last year's Takoma Park election. Still, there are critics of a lower voting age. Some say 16-year-olds just flat out aren't ready. That's why, for example, you have to be 18 to join the military or buy that Powerball ticket. And there's also skepticism from an unlikely source - juvenile justice advocates.

DANIEL OKONKWO: I'm not against 16-year-olds voting.

MADDEN: Daniel Okonkwo is head of D.C. Lawyers For Youth. But he worries that opening the ballot box to 16-year-olds could also make it easier for prosecutors to charge them as adults in court.

OKONKWO: There are often cries for, well, we have young people doing adult crimes. They should do adult time. And so if we're going to give teenagers, give children more adult responsibilities, I think it's necessary to build in, somehow, some safeguards.

MADDEN: The D.C. bill enfranchising 16-year-olds was introduced in November, but it hasn't come up for a vote yet. In a city government dominated by Democrats, Blackwell says the measure wouldn't change the political balance.

BLACKWELL: It's just really more so about giving the young people representation because they have no real lobby.

MADDEN: Until that happens, this unlikely lobbyist will continue pressing her case both on and off the stage. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Madden.

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