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Give 17-Year-Olds a Local Vote

After an 18-month campaign by students at Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin high school, the Cambridge City Council will bring a petition requesting suffrage for 17-year-olds in local elections to the Massachusetts state legislature.

Seventeen-year-old Cambridge residents would be eligible to vote for City Council and School Committee elections, in addition to local ballot questions. Cambridge teenagers would be the only people in the country younger than 18 allowed to vote in any election.

It is true that there is no obvious reason why the voting age would be lowered, as it was with the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1970, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. In that case, teenagers argued that those who were old enough to be drafted for the Vietnam war should be old enough to vote in national elections, and the voting age was lowered from 21. In Cambridge, however, there is no obvious reason to lower the local voting age other than encouraging students to vote while still in high school.

However, there do not seem to be any legitimate arguments against letting 17-year-olds vote in city elections. Seventeen is no less arbitrary an “appropriate age of maturity” than 18. The inclusion of 17-year-olds would not noticeably change the local political landscape, especially given Cambridge’s strong liberal voting block.

However, there is great benefit in the potential of a more active voting body. Lowering the local voting age to 17 would give nearly all high school seniors the right to vote, whereas the current voting age means many students never get to vote before leaving high school. By encouraging more students to vote before heading off to work or college, Cambridge could help instill a sense of voting responsibility in a larger fraction of young potential voters. In Saxony, Germany, the local voting age was lowered to 16, and almost immediately 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds were found to have a higher voter turnout than 18-year-olds. While the same cannot be guaranteed to happen in Cambridge, the poor annual turnout from young voters could only improve with a lower voting age.

However, there is perhaps no greater argument for lowering the local voting age than the simple fact that students currently too young to vote are asking for the right to do so. The fact that Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School students initiated the campaign to petition the state legislature is a powerful reason for the enfranchisement for area high schoolers. Furthermore, educational funding initiatives and school board elections will hit very close to home for those who experience the education system firsthand. While one could argue that the voting age could be lowered even further for this reason, there comes a point when students will simply be too young to either take a serious interest in voting or sustain that interest throughout the high school years. By letting 17-year-olds vote, students will be given the opportunity to register and get a first taste of voting just in time for their first opportunity to vote in national elections the following year. With any luck, lowering the local voting age could have a significant impact on state and national turnout.

If nothing else, the plan is a noble experiment, and a good first step in reenergizing a dwindling spirit of civic duty shown by the poor student voter turnout each November.