Andrew Balaban, Staff Writer
Senate Bill S366, a New York State Senate Bill currently in the Elections Committee, proposes an amendment to New York election law that would lower the voting age in state and local elections from 18 to 16. The bill also aims to incorporate civics into high school social studies curricula, and mandates schools supply voter registration forms to students who will turn 16 by election day. The introduction of S366 fits into a larger conversation about voting rights for people under 18.
The bill was initially introduced to the Senate in the 2017-18 legislative cycle, sponsored by District 27 State Senator, Brad Hoylman. It has another version in the New York State Assembly, sponsored by Robert Caroll of Brooklyn.
“This bill would let 16- and 17-year-old New Yorkers register to vote in state and local elections,” says Aaron Ghitelman, Press Secretary for Senator Hoylman, “It also would…incorporate civics into high school curricula.”
S366 was in part prompted by a global, and in some cases domestic push for youth suffrage. Although in nearly every democracy in the world, you must be 18 to vote, there are a growing number of exceptions. For example, in Austria, the voting age has been sixteen since 2007. In 2015, Scotland reduced the voting age to 16 for Scottish Parliament and local elections. Three cities in the United States, including Hyattsville, MD, and Takoma Park, MD allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections.
“I think it was kind of inspired…by seeing the actions that have happened elsewhere in the country,” Ghitelman says.
The current voting age in New York is 18 years of age in state and local elections, but prior to the 1970s, the minimum age was 21. The debate around lowering the voting age to 18 primarily centered around 18-year-olds’ military participation in the Vietnam War (coupled with an increase in political activism amongst young people). The age was lowered because of a decades-long debate around youth suffrage, which started during World War II and culminated with the passage of the 26th amendment. New York’s voting age was officially lowered from 21 to 18 on June 2nd, 1971, after it ratified the 26th Amendment.
Today, advocates for youth suffrage employ a variety of arguments to support lowering the voting age to 16. One of these arguments relates to 16-year-olds’ overall participation in society.
“We also have to abide by the rules and laws, they affect us too,” says Sage Rochetti, junior at New Paltz High School, “…so why shouldn’t we have our input?”
The justification for Bill S366 on the New York Senate website also relates to young people’s involvement in society.
“Currently in the state of New York,” the justification reads, “sixteen year-olds are tasked with many of the responsibilities of adulthood. Because they do not have the right to vote, sixteen year-olds have no input towards the government that shapes their lives, no input as to who oversees the public schools that 85% of them attend, no input as to who will make the crucial decisions of the day, decisions that will affect their lives.”
Another argument concerns how the decisions legislators are making now will end up having greater effects on young people. Therefore, as supporters of expanding the voting age argue, young people should have a say in the selection of policymakers.
“The long-term effects of the decisions that the politicians make won’t be affecting them [older people] as much,” says Caleb Lai, sixteen-year-old and junior at New Paltz High School, “so young people should be able to vote because the politicians who they’d be voting for are making decisions that affect them the most.”
That argument is made more pertinent when considering the damaging effects that climate change and environmental destruction will have on younger generations.
“The kinds of problems that…our generations have been leaving,” says Albert Cook, Social Studies teacher at New Paltz High School, “many of them are existential problems, with this environmental problem being the greatest in my view, and I think that the kind of dynamic that exists in our political and social realm…is maturing our young people faster in that arena.”
Lowering the voting age may increase voter turnout in the long run. Some evidence indicates that developing voting habits at an early age is a predictor of future voting habits.
“Lowering the voting age will help establish…a lifetime of active civic behavior;” Ghitelman envisions. “There’s research that shows that the younger somebody is the first time they vote, the more likely they will continue to be an active voter throughout the rest of their lives, and… connecting people with this while they’re in high school is kind of a good and easy boarding ramp to get people engaged in our democracy.”
While there is support for lowering the voting age, the notion is still largely controversial. In 2020, San Francisco voters defeated Proposition G, which would have lowered the voting age to 16 in city-wide elections. As in the debates of the 1960s around whether 18-year olds should have the right to vote, the most common argument against lowering the voting age to 16 relates to young people’s lack of experience and immaturity.
“I don’t think that at 16 you have the right knowledge of how government works,” says Kyle Newman, junior at New Paltz High School.
Put more bluntly…
“People are too…stupid at 16,” says Juliana Vasquez, junior at New Paltz High School.
Whether S366 will be passed in the upcoming legislative cycle or end up meeting the same fate as Prop G in San Francisco is unclear. The bill has six co-sponsors in the Senate and 23 co-sponsors in the Assembly.
“I personally would love to see this bill move up,” says Ghitelman, “and to…see it go into effect and increase participation in our democracy.”