Incredibly, 16-Year-Olds In D.C. Might Be Able To Vote For President In 2020

A bill granting 16-year-olds the right to vote is gaining steam in our nation's capital.

Sixteen-year-olds in Washington D.C. could be voting for president — and a whole lot more — in 2020.

Council Member Charles Allen, a Democrat, introduced a bill to city council on Tuesday that would lower the voting age to 16. If the bill is enacted, Washington D.C. — a city with 700,000 residents that has no representation in the House or Senate — could become the first jurisdiction in the country to allow 16-year-olds to vote in a federal election. 

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"At age 16, the relationship people have with their government fundamentally changes," Allen told A Plus. "In most places, you can drive a car, putting you out on the street with a couple of tons of steel. You can work a job, now you're responsible for paying taxes… they're making adult decisions day in and day out."

Council Member Charles Allen with local D.C. youth at a council meeting.  Erik Salmi

Allen first tried to introduce the bill two years ago, in 2015, but couldn't find any support. He says what drove him to push the bill is the evidence that the younger and more frequently people vote, the more likely they are going to become civically engaged, lifelong voters. What's really helped the bill get momentum this time, though, is not an argument about engaging the youth. It's that over the last few months Americans have witnessed the thoughtfulness, action and leadership displayed by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, Allen said.

"Two years ago, the argument I heard was 16-year-olds don't have the ability to make decisions, 16-year-olds don't have the ability to be really engaged," he said. "The leadership that we've seen in the last couple of months has just completely eviscerated that argument. There are very few people who can make that argument now with a straight face."

Allen added that there are almost 11,000 16- and 17-year-olds in Washington D.C., 70 percent of whom are Black. Lowering the voting age, he said, would help give disenfranchised communities a greater say in policy, budgetary and legal decisions that they've previously been left out of.

This time around, Allen's stable of political support is looking much healthier. He knows he can get the bill out of committee because he chairs a committee with election oversight. He can guarantee there will be a hearing, and he thinks he can get a vote on the bill and pass it. Mayor Muriel Bowser has voiced support for the bill, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine supports the bill, and he's picked up some nods of approval in Congress.

Council Member Charles Allen discussing his bill with Washington D.C. youth. Erik Salmi

17-year-old Abubakr Uqdah, a youth leader with the ACLU, is one the local students getting behind the bill. 

"Now is a day and age where teens are more active in protesting, marching, and really using their voices and voting would just be an extra thing to encourage that," Uqdah told A Plus. "We work, we pay taxes, we can drive a car, we can make certain medical decisions, so I think that lowering the voting age wouldn't be too much of a responsibility for us."

Alik Schier, a 16-year-old who attends Wilson High School, works as a youth leader at the Young Women's Project in D.C. It has partnered with Vote16USA, the national campaign organized by Generation Citizen, which aims to lower the voting age across the country. At the Young Women's Project, Schier says he speaks and learns about issues like sexual health, mental health, substance abuse and sometimes even violence. He sees no reason why he shouldn't be able to vote, too. 

"We know whats happening in our lives better than anyone else," Schier said. "We're in school five out of seven days of the week, so we know what is working in the schools and what's not. Politicians talk about improving education but they are just kind of guessing."

Both said addressing gun violence would be a top priority if they got their right to vote, but Schier added that the same things that affect 16-year-olds effect 30-, 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds: quality of education, healthcare and neighborhood safety.

Council Member Charles Allen discussing his bill with Washington D.C. youth. Erik Salmi

Uqdah was skeptical at first, but only because he didn't think it the voting age could change constitutionally. As it turns out, the Constitution only prohibits raising the voting age, it doesn't say anything about lowering it. In fact, nearby towns in Maryland — such as Takoma Park and Greenbelt — have already lowered the voting age for local, municipal elections. 

Because Congress has passive oversight of Washington D.C. law, thanks to The District of Columbia Home Rule Act, the bill will still have to make it through the federal government to become law. In 2014, Congress blocked a bill that would legalize a small amount of marijuana for personal use after it had been passed by D.C. lawmakers.

Allen, though, is unphased by the prospect. 

"I believe this is a Congress right now that can barely figure out how to advance their own priorities," he said. "The idea that you would have the entire U.S. House of Representatives, the entire U.S. Senate and the president all take action to block a local bill from D.C. — it just doesn't happen very often. I don't think that they'll block it, but if they do, they better be ready for a fight."

Cover image via Nicole S Glass / Shutterstock.com.

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