“Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” – Aristotle
What if Yankton wanted to help its teens develop the good habit of voting?
Well, we wouldn’t be alone.
Supporters of lowering the voting age in San Francisco at an advocacy day in 2015. (Courtesy of CityLab).
Two Maryland communities have, in recent years, decided to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
And, yes, those two communities — Takoma Park and Hyattsville — are still with us.
The issue of allowing teens to vote has been brought forward in a variety of municipalities, school districts and states in recent years. See here and here and here.
Several organizations, including the National Youth Rights Association, FairVote and Generation Citizen, have been advocating to lower the voting age.
I am excited about exploring the possibility of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Yankton’s municipal elections, because I think they have an important and legitimate voice that we need to hear. As we know, many of Yankton’s youth — and the youth of this region in general — leave after high school graduation and never return (at least not permanently).
What happens when we do listen to our youth?
This recent article from Dakotafire gives us insight. Take a look at this excerpt:
(Craig) Schroeder (a senior fellow of New Generation Partnerships at the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship) thinks there’s been a shift in mindset to believe that if you grew up in a small community you might want to continue living in one. Some rural communities have seen a 25 percent increase in population.
It’s important for rural leaders to figure out what students want.
“What would make them want to stay?” Schroeder asked.
From his perspective, allowing students to have an impact on community decisions is an important step.
Youth need to tell the adult leaders in their hometowns what they want that community to be, Schroeder said.
“It’s important to make youth aware of these opportunities and train them in leadership and entrepreneurship, to give them an opportunity to direct the course of their communities,” he said.
His research developed three key interlocking concepts community members can use to develop youth:
1. Entrepreneurial education and career development
2. Youth involvement and leadership in the community
3. Community support of youth enterprise.
“If young people are involved in improving their community it causes them to have a greater investment in their community,” Schroeder said.
As we have more talk of entrepreneurship in Yankton and efforts are undertaken to involve youth in those conversations, what if we also gave them the power to vote in municipal elections? (Maybe the school district would also want to expand its voting parameters …)
I know you have many questions.
One of the first ones I get from people I’ve discussed this with is, “Have you spent time with many 16-year-olds? Do you really want them voting?”
Research has shown that the political contributions of 16- and 17-year-olds are on equal footing with other age groups. Here is an excerpt from the 2012 study, “Voting At 16: Turnout And The Quality Of Vote Choice”:
Critics of lowering the voting age to 16 have argued that such teenage citizens are not able or motivated to participate effectively in politics and that this both drives their turnout decisions and means that their electoral choices are of lower quality. We have tested whether these criticisms have an empirical basis using evidence from Austria, the one European country where the voting age has already been lowered for nation-wide elections.
Our findings prove the critics wrong. First, we do not find that citizens under 18 are particularly unable or unwilling to participate effectively in politics. Second, while turnout among this group is relatively low, we find no evidence that this is driven by a lacking ability or motivation to participate. Instead, 18- to 21-year-olds are if anything the more problematic group. Finally, we do not find that the vote choices of citizens under 18 reflect their preferences less well than those of older voters do. In sum, lowering the voting age does not appear to have a negative impact on input legitimacy and the quality of democratic decisions. This means that the potential positive consequences of this reform merit particular consideration and should also be empirically studied.
So what would it take to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the to vote in Yankton’s municipal elections?
Well, I’ve not had a lawyer familiar with South Dakota state law offer an opinion, but Generation Citizen completed a legal feasibility study of all 50 states. It found that cities in South Dakota can likely lower the voting age without any resistance from the state legislature:
Cities and counties can lower the voting age for their local elections through charter amendments.
The South Dakota state Constitution and election code both grant the right to vote to those 18 and older, and do not specifically prohibit those under 18 from voting (Const. Art. 7 § 2 and SDCL 12-3-1). Any county or city in South Dakota can adopt a charter, and “A chartered governmental unit may exercise any legislative power or perform any function not denied by its charter, the Constitution or the general laws of the state” (Const. Art. 9 § 2). A state statute lists the restrictions on power of home rule units, and this list does not include elections. Therefore, it seems that home rule units (cities or counties) in South Dakota can lower the voting age for their local elections through charter amendments. Charter amendments must be approved by voters.
One problem: Yankton is not a home rule unit. However, many other communities our size in the state are, and it is a subject that is currently being researched by the city’s legal council. (To be clear, that research is not being done due to this topic.)
So it appears that if the citizenry of Yankton were interested in expanding our voting age, it would not be an overnight process. But it could be done if the will were present.
What do you think? Is it time to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the ability to vote and have a voice in Yankton?
If any Yankton youth — or adults — want to explore this issue further, let’s talk!
If you’d like to read more, check out these links: