by Laila Polk
graphic courtesy of Vote16 Newton
Expanding the electorate means expanding our democracy, and Vote16 is an organization that aims to do so by working to lower the voting age in cities and towns nationwide. In Newton, we have the opportunity to lead by example and join the small number of municipalities that have extended the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.
Newton is at an inflection point. Climate change, an affordable housing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us to rethink what it means to be a progressive and welcoming city to all. Lowering the municipal voting age to 16 means that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to vote in local elections for mayor, school committee and city council.
The youth vote brings a more future-oriented and change-focused mindset to the aforementioned key issues facing our city. The time we’re living in is monumental. We have the option to further entrench ourselves in a state where the youth voice is ignored or progress into a brighter, more equal future, and we must choose the latter.
It is us, young people, who will be forced to live through the effects of current issues like climate change. We need leadership on these issues that will affect us for the rest of our lives, and the only way to do that is to give the youth a voice by lowering the municipal voting age.
Beyond highlighting the voice of young people, lowering the voting age would also increase lifelong civic participation, diversifying the electorate. If young people have the opportunity to vote in municipal elections starting at 16, they will begin to build a lifelong engagement in civic affairs and develop a better understanding of local issues.
Voting is an important habit to establish amongst young people. As Mark Franklin, professor emeritus at Trinity College explains, “If you don’t vote in the first three elections for which you’re eligible, you’re less likely to vote for the rest of your life.” Lowering the voting age means that students will actively reinforce the civics education they receive in schools. Lowering the voting age not only increases the age diversity of Newton’s registered voters, but also the racial diversity. While only 20% of adult Newton residents are minorities, nearly 40% of NPS students are, meaning that lowering the voting age will increase voter diversity by a considerable measure.
Now is the time to make change and to be the progressive and welcoming city that Newton claims to be. Fulfilling Vote16’s mission to enfranchise 16- and 17-year-olds gives us a voice and agency over our own futures. At the end of the day, people ought to be able to vote on the issues that impact them, and it is Newton’s responsibility to grant the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds so they may vote to confront the crises that affect them.