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Daniel Hart: Time for American Teens Under 18 to Hit the Polls

  • Thu, Feb 24 2011

Extending voting rights to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds would be a first for the United States. But is the country ready? Rutgers University professor Daniel Hart says yes, and has found that these teens are just as informed as eighteen-year-olds who currently have the right to vote. Hart discusses his research, which is published in the January 2011 Annals volume, "The Child as Citizen," in the following interview with Stephanie Marudas. Daniel Hart is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Camden and runs the Rutgers Center for Children and Childhood Studies.

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  • Daniel Hart: Time for American Teens Under 18 to Hit the Polls

Stephanie Marudas: First off, let’s talk about voting rights in the United States. Its history, to some extent, is a long one and it is complicated as it relates to gender and race and age. And not even fifty years ago, most states, the voting age was twenty-one and it went to eighteen.  If you can sort of give us an overview, what happened in the country? If you could take us back. 

Daniel Hart: I think that one of the trends that has characterized all our voting, as you were just suggesting, is that increasingly we have seen that it is important for citizens to be able to vote and our understanding of who is a citizen and who is not has expanded over the past two hundred years to include populations that have traditionally been excluded; blacks, women and, in the last fifty years, to include eighteen-year-olds, for example, 18, 19, and 20-year-olds who had long been excluded from the vote prior to that.

SM: Thinking back to the early 1970s, Richard Nixon signs a declaration saying states should lower the voting age. You had young men going off to war but yet they could not vote.

DH: I think I remember reading a quote by Ted Kennedy, who argued that one of the big reasons—the best argument—for lowering the voting age to eighteen was that it was immoral in some sense to ask young men to go off to war in Vietnam and yet not be able to vote or comment on what our country believes and what our country ought to do. So I think you are right, that that is probably the biggest, easiest force to recognize as for why the voting age was lowered.

SM: Now here we are in 2011 and you and Robert Atkins in your article within The Annals “Child As Citizen” volume [American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote]  are making the point that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in the United States are ready to vote.  There is empirical evidence that supports it. Your article shows this and also debunks some of the claims that teenagers, being sixteen and seventeen years old, are not mature enough or numerologically ready to do so.  Can you take us through what you learned from the data and why this supports sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds voting? 

DH: I think we make three major points.  The first of these is that if you look at the kind of preparation that adolescents have to vote in terms of their understanding of the issues, what they understand about civic life, their levels of participation in public life, they are not different from those that we have seen in eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. So if you look, for example, at how much the average sixteen-year-old knows or the average seventeen-year-old knows about the political system, it is about the same level as the average eighteen- or nineteen-year-old. So if our justification for excluding someone from voting is that they lack the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision, then setting the barrier at age eighteen is not particularly legitimate. Now, our analyses seem to suggest that once you get below age sixteen, adolescents in fact do know less. So we are advocating the extension of the vote to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds but not to fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. On average we see fifteen-year-olds knowing much less about the political system than older adolescents. And so we think there is a justification for lowering the voting age by two years but not going below that. Second, people argue that adolescents are impulsive, too susceptible to peer influences, and for these reasons are not, say, fully adult, at least when it comes to issues, say, of criminal responsibility. And we tend to agree with those findings, but we do not think that they are particularly germane to the issue of who votes and who does not. That is, that you can be impulsive and prone to making bad decisions in situations that are high in stress, that are high in emotionality and, consequently, may have diminished criminal responsibility in situations that lead to criminal acts, but that is not the context in which adolescents would be voting. Okay, there is some emotion involved with that, but you have plenty of time to reflect about who you would want to vote for as a candidate and to deliberate on that. So the situations are a little bit different, we think, and very different in important respects. And third, we think that as our population grows older the concerns of younger people are being ignored and that one way of restoring this balance to give greater concern to the interests of children and teenagers is by giving younger people the vote.

SM: Going back to your study, what did you learn in terms of that difference between fifteen-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds? What showed that fifteen-year-olds just knew less?

DH: Across development there are rarely steps where you go from not knowing anything to knowing a whole lot, and so any dividing line will be somewhat arbitrary.  But if you look at the levels of knowledge between, in the civic domain, how much people know about the political system and you asked them questions about who is the vice president, who is the president, how many senators there are, and so on.  The average for the country for sixteen-year-olds is really not very different from that of eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds.  But that is where you see things leveling off.  Before that there is still an increase, so thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-olds there is still an increase in how much they know.  That increase levels off around age sixteen and that is not really that uncommon of a finding as in other areas you see increases through early to mid-adolescence and then some leveling off after age sixteen or so.

SM: As your article points out in The Annals that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, they possess the same amount of civic knowledge, political efficacy.  There is really just no difference then, between them and an eighteen-year-old.

DH: We do not think so.  Nothing that you would say would give a principled reason for excluding a seventeen-year-old or a sixteen-year-old from voting.  This is not to say that the sixteen-year-old is the same as a thirty-year-old; in fact thirty-year-olds do know more typically about the civic world then do sixteen-year-olds.  But having given the vote to eighteen-year-olds, the question is why give it to eighteen-year-olds and not to seventeen-year-olds or sixteen-year-olds and what we are suggesting is that there is really no good reason to allow eighteen-year-olds to vote and to exclude sixteen-year-olds from the ability to register their opinion about how the country is being run.

SM: One of the benefits, perhaps, of allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote, as your article points out, would be deepening the civic commitment on the part of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, that if maybe you start their civic life a little sooner than eighteen that that will carry with them.  If you could touch on that.  

DH: There is a lot of evidence to indicate that the civic habits that are acquired in adolescence shape civic life through adulthood so that eighteen-year-olds who vote in the first election that they are eligible for are more likely to remain voters through the remainder of their lives than are people who do not vote at eighteen.  And the same thing comes with volunteering and other forms of public participation in civic life.  So if we give the vote to sixteen-year-olds where they are still in the context where adult influence is possible, we encourage them to vote, we get them to vote, we believe it is more likely that that will become part of their repertoire of public life, that they will continue to vote in early adulthood and throughout the rest of their lives. There is some evidence that that occurs with volunteering.  We know that adolescents who volunteer or are involved in community service of one sort or another continue to be volunteers in adulthood.  And so we think there is just a lot of benefit in terms of addressing everyone’s concern about the participation of younger generations in public life by allowing them to vote, trying to create these good habits for civic life now.  

SM: Are other countries allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote, or are other countries taking steps to do so? 

DH: Yes, there is a lot of interest, in at least some countries, in thinking about this.  The evidence is a little bit mixed about the value of doing this in terms of transforming adolescence.  No one has come across evidence that suggests that allowing sixteen-year-olds to vote results in very strange voting patterns that would suggest that sixteen-year-olds are doing something foolish.  It is not, by itself it appears, to be the solution to increasing dramatically the participation of sixteen-year-olds in public life, but it does seem to be a reasonable step in that direction.  The countries that have tried it, that have extended the vote to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, are still very early in this process and so it is hard to say what the long-term results will suggest from this change in voting laws in other countries.

SM: Which countries are those that are starting to do this? 

DH: Well, England has had a very heated discussion about this issue.  I think the Isle of Man has extended the vote to sixteen-year-olds. I think Brazil has; Austria. But we do not have enough in the way of good research on what is happening as a consequence of extending the vote to really make any generalizations based on the international evidence.

SM: The election of President Barack Obama catalyzed a whole young voter movement in an unprecedented way.  We heard even young people who could not vote, so those under eighteen, they still went to the rallies, they were sort of politically active with their families and friends, yet they did not have the right to vote.

DH: The analyses of the vote for President Obama suggested that the young vote was very important.  And young voters, and young people in general, have often been very important in political movements, even when they have not been allowed to vote.  We know that many of the social movements of the past fifty years have been energized by young people, whether or not they have been voters.  If we look at Egypt right now, for example, almost everyone believes that young people are fueling the demonstrations there.  Even though they are not all teenagers, teenagers are clearly present and important in terms of adding political fervor and energy to these kinds of demonstrations.  It would be nice to capture some of that energy, we think, by allowing young people in the United States who have sufficient civic knowledge to do so, to vote.

SM: In some regards, by the time young people reach a college campus, if they do go to college, they might be politically active or they are just starting to become politically active.

DH: We think so. Adolescence is clearly a crucial period for forming opinions and it is probably the last period of the lifespan where you see a lot of plasticity in terms of habits and political views, and it would be an opportune time to give adolescence the possibility of actually using some of the knowledge they are acquiring in school in a setting that matters, to a degree, which is voting.  And so I agree that the college years are very important.  There is a lot of indication that those years are when people are laying the foundation for their lives as civic individuals in our society.  But the late teen years, too, are also important and would become more important if we allowed sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote.

SM: Most high schools in this country have some sort of student government association, their clubs, and those are all typically elected positions and so students are already in that habit of making informed choices within their student bodies. 

DH: We know that those kind of experiences, student government, clubs where you have elected offices and so on, are very important in promoting civic attitudes that carry on into adulthood.  So we know that students who have been active in student government in high school are more likely to become active voters and active citizens.  Same thing with clubs, participating in clubs in high school is a good predictor of who will be active in their communities in adulthood.  Even mock votes, where students are invited to imagine who they would vote for if they were allowed to, and go to voting booths and cast their ballots for whoever is running for president; even that experience, which does not have any real meaning, has been shown to lay down habits that carry into early adulthood.  Students whose schools have mock votes are more likely to really vote when they reach early adulthood.  So it is a crucial period for forming good civic habits.

SM: What would need to happen in this country for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote?  As your article in The Annals points out, this is a topic that really is not a topic of concern for a lot of Americans. But what would need to happen, if you could envision this?

DH: I do not think that there is organized opposition to an idea like this.  Adults in general tend to think of adolescents as being poorly prepared for any adult responsibilities and imagine that adolescents will make bad decisions in whatever domain.  So I think there is some ordinary resistance to the idea that we would find if we were to poll older adults, for example.  On the other hand, I do not think that there is any particular group that would oppose this.  The opposition to lowering the vote to eighteen turned out not to be impossible to overcome, and it certainly seems possible that it is an idea that could catch on and energize at least some seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  There are some small groups of young people who are trying to advance this cause already.  If it became one of those ideas that really captured the attention of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds and made it into social media, who knows? I do not think we really have a good sense at this point about the power of that kind of social media for influencing political views.  But I think most people suspect that social media can be very important.  There have been suggestions that it has been important in the protests around Egypt and Tunisia, for example, and I think most people would also agree that the full potential of social media is not yet known.  And almost everyone thinks that social media are better used by young people than by older people.  So I think there is some possibility that it could happen, but it is hard to say what the actual possibilities are at this point. A big part of what society does in terms of preparing youth for adulthood is offer opportunities.  And adolescents who are offered opportunities to contribute civically typically do.  Our experience in Camden has been when you ask the kids we work with if they would like to volunteer to do one sort or another is that they are all very happy to do so.  And they understand the value of these kinds of activities in terms of contributing to their neighbors and friends and the other citizens of Camden.  What they need is not some skill that they do not have or some knowledge that they lack, but an opportunity to practice the skills that they have to one degree or another.  Getting involved in community is one opportunity and communities do that through community service and volunteer opportunities.  But another one could be voting. If adolescents could vote we think that they would make good use of that opportunity, would learn something from it, would establish good habits that would carry them into adulthood.

SM: What about fairness? If sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are demonstrating that they are citizens yet they do not have the right to vote, how does fairness play into this?

DH: We would like to believe as a country that who we allow to vote and who we exclude from the vote is principled. It is based on some aspect of fairness. We could certainly make a good case for why five-year-olds should not be able to vote, because we would say they lack the knowledge necessary to make an informed vote.  They might be too susceptible to the influence of their parents, and so on.  Though it is worth noting that some people have argued that even five-year-olds ought to be given a vote that would be held in trust by parents and parents would be allowed to exercise on behalf of their children the vote.  But what we are suggesting is that maybe on initial reactions we might think that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are fairly excluded from joining the public and voting, but then when you actually look at the details it is an unprincipled, unfair decision that, in fact, if we think of the qualities that we ordinarily imagine to be important for deciding who gets a vote and who does not, that adolescents who are sixteen and seventeen are in as much possession of those characteristics as are eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds.  And so on the principle of fairness and ensuring that everyone who ought to be able to vote is allowed to vote, we are saying that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds ought to be given that right.