Op-ed: This is why Delaware needs to lower the voting age

"We need bold new ideas to increase participation in democracy through voting, and this could do that."

Originally published in Delaware Online on April 27, 2023.

All over the country, young people are getting involved on important issues of the day, responding to gun violence, racial injustices, and the climate crisis, and yet many have not developed the habit of voting. A recently released study by Tufts University showed that during the 2022 election, national youth turnout was 23% down 5% from the 28% turnout we saw in 2018. Delaware’s youth turnout fell well below the national average at 18.7%. 

We can all agree that participating in our elections is important. Delaware’s public and charter schools are required to include civic education as a part of their social studies curriculum, so we are investing in teaching young people about the importance of our elections. But these lessons alone are not inspiring young people to participate. 

Studies show that civic education is most effective when it has an experiential component. n For example, we could better encourage young people to vote regularly by allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote in school board elections. And a new bill just introduced  in the Delaware House, HB 96, would do precisely that.

This legislation would allow young people to help choose the adults who will make decisions about education. They can participate in an election that directly impacts not only them, but their peers, teachers, and faculty members. This would be an excellent way to introduce young people to the practice and the power of voting.

Beginning this process at age 16 rather than 18 would mean that first-time voting could be a teachable moment done with the support of teachers and parents, and in tandem with civics lessons. Socializing students into the habit of voting at an early age will help instill the value of civic responsibility in a new generation of Delaware voters.

Current Delaware law recognizes the importance of youth voting. The First State already allows 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the date of the general election, as do many other states. And Delaware already allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote prior to becoming eligible to vote, as do almost half of all states. Allowing young people to vote in school board elections is a logical add-on to this existing principle. 

Another major benefit of this legislation is the potential for habit formation. The sixteenth year is generally far less tumultuous than the eighteenth, when young people are focused on major life changes like beginning college or joining the workforce. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote while they are strongly connected to their local community reinforces the feeling that their participation is vital. This is an opportunity to get young people to commit to voting before they move out of their parents’ home and likely to begin a decade-long period of geographic mobility that contributes significantly to low voter participation among young adults. 

Beyond that, society already recognizes the sixteenth year as a point of maturity. At 16, young people can start working without a permit and obtain a driver’s license. Working 16- and 17-year-olds pay taxes on their earnings. They are also old enough to petition the Court for emancipation, and if a 16-year-old commits a crime in Delaware, they can be tried as an adult. Studies show that 16-year-olds are no less capable of making electoral judgments than 18-year-olds. 

Common Cause Delaware is proud to support this legislation. In 1971, Common Cause led the campaign that won the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing 18 year-olds to vote. Back then, opponents of that measure questioned the maturity and responsibility of people at the age of 18. We imagine that some people may have similar misgivings about this bill. To this, we say: we need bold new ideas to increase participation in democracy through voting, and this could do that. We applaud Rep. Eric Morrison and Sen. Sarah McBride for this legislation, and we urge lawmakers to pass it.