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As recently as 1971, Harvard students under 21 were still fighting for the right to vote. That probably seems absurd now. Which raises the question: In another half-century, will it be equally absurd that 16- and 17-year-olds can’t vote now?
Last week, Cambridge City Council voted in favor of allowing citizens aged 16 and older to vote in Cambridge elections for city council, school committee, and local ballot measures. The home rule petition has been forwarded to the Massachusetts State Legislature and requires its approval before 16- and 17-year-olds can, contra Mass. state law, vote in Cambridge elections.
This marks the third time that the Cambridge City Council has proposed lowering the voting age, with the previous two in 2002 and 2006 ultimately failing in the state legislature. The difficulty faced by the proposal matches a pervasive national skepticism about lowering the voting age. In a recent poll, a majority of registered voters opposed lowering the voting age, and when Mass. Representative Ayanna Pressley proposed doing so as part of a voting rights bill, the amendment failed 126 to 305, with opponents expressing doubts that 16-year-olds had sufficient maturity. It follows that only Takoma Park, Md. has granted 16- and 17-year-olds the municipal right.
While the disenfranchisement of young people is certainly not analogous to this discrimination of people of color, a lack of maturity seems to be a weak argument that makes apparent a profound historical myopia. Racist limitations on suffrage have historically taken their most insidious forms as poll taxes and literacy tests, which were meant to bar black voters by taking advantage of their reduced economic means and limited access to education. It would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, to legally abolish these forms of discrimination. As a society, we rightly came to acknowledge that notions of voter quality or qualification are more often than not masks, easy ways to disenfranchise people whose voice is perceived by those in power as a threat.
Our society functions on the principle that individuals should have the right to collectively select their representatives in local, state, and federal governments, holding them accountable through regular and frequent elections. Expansion of those rights, therefore, merit serious discussions and reflections.
As such, we support granting 16- and 17-year-olds the vote, especially on the local issues that directly affect them, not on grounds of their capacities but on the grounds that it is their right to do so.
Still, we believe that granting young people the right to vote is a great opportunity to increase their civic awareness and engagement more broadly. Alongside this new civil liberty, Cambridge schools should spend more time teaching civics to help students make informed decisions at the ballot box. We commend the work that the Harvard Civics Program has done in that area.
Moreover, beyond first-principle arguments, we believe that lowering the voting age in local elections also provides practical benefits for local politics. Currently, many people are introduced to politics when they come of age in college, and, as a result, most of their attention is likely focused on national issues and their accompanying brouhaha, often at the cost of important local politics. The average local election draws one in every five voters, and 99 percent of respondents in an average media market never look at local news sites. If young people were introduced to politics at the local election before leaving home, they might well come to appreciate and form long-term and meaningful engagements with local politics, which many would argue carry more significance and impact than national elections anyway.
Lastly, as we champion the enfranchisement of young voters, we would be remiss if we fail to recognize the many people — noncitizen residents, undocumented residents, incarcerated citizens, or ex-felons — who do not have the right to vote. Equally, they deserve a say on matters that affect them, and the deprivation of their rights is a stain on our democracy.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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