We should let high schoolers and non-citizen residents vote in local elections

This coming legislative session, the State of Maryland will consider MC25-16 a bill that would amend the state’s constitution to allow Montgomery County to lower its voting age to 16 and extend voting rights to non-citizen residents in elections for school board and other local offices.

According to FairVote‘s Austin Plier, the bill represents a county-wide extension of a policy that’s already working at the city level:

Vote via Shutterstock

Vote via Shutterstock

Expanding suffrage in this manner isn’t a new idea; in fact, doing so would not be the first time members of either of these groups gained some level of suffrage in Montgomery County. The city of Takoma Park—located in Montgomery County—expanded suffrage to non-citizen residents long ago, and further expanded suffrage to 16 and 17 year olds in 2013 for its municipal elections. This came after the city passed a “Right to Vote Resolution” as community leaders considered ways to uphold voting as a fundamental right at the local level.

Other communities in Maryland also permit all voting age residents to vote, include Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, and Somerset among others. Hyattsville, in neighboring Prince George’s County, joined Takoma Park in lowering its local voting age to 16 in 2015.

There are a number of objections to lowered voting ages, and a few more objections to letting non-citizens vote. I don’t think any of them are strong enough to make bills like MC25-15 a bad idea:

Lowered voting age

High schoolers will just vote the way their parents tell them: If there is any stage in life at which someone is least likely to do something just because their parents told them to, it’s adolescence. That aside, the transmission of political values from parent to child is far weaker than originally thought. So while ideological preferences (although not partisan affiliation) are somewhat heritable — your parents will have some degree of influence on your political views throughout life independent from your environment — it doesn’t make sense to disqualify high schoolers from voting for fear that their parents will ground them if they split their households’ votes. We still have a secret ballot, after all.

But let’s say that children who live with their parents are, in fact, likely to have their votes affected by their parents. How would that be different from citizens having their votes affected by interest group endorsements or cues from community leaders? We already grant ourselves a wide latitude to affect the political opinions and vote choices of our fellow citizens through political discourse and free association, and we already outlaw attempts to raise that influence to the level of coercion. And, again, we back those protections up with the secret ballot. The argument that parents would exert undue influence on children who vote can just as easily be applied to other power relations that can intersect with the political process.

Also, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has pointed out, giving a household of five more voting power than a household of two might not actually be so objectionable in the first place.

High schoolers aren’t informed enough to vote: This argument simply isn’t any more true for a 16 year-old than it is for a 19 year-old, a 78 year-old or a 45 year-old. There are people with all levels of political information in all age groups. If information levels and voter competency are important to your democratic theory, there are better ways to measure them than arbitrary age requirements, although previous attempts to do so in the United States didn’t go so well.

The argument that high schoolers aren’t experienced or informed enough to vote is especially weak for local elections where high schoolers are arguably more likely to be informed about the consequences of their votes than adults. Local school boards, for example, are making decisions that specifically affect the lives of high schoolers in ways that don’t directly affect their parents. It’s not like high schoolers don’t have opinions on policy and curriculum changes taking place in their schools. Does it really make sense, then, for high schoolers to be excluded from school board elections while their parents — to say nothing of childless adults — are allowed to participate?

Extending voting rights to non-citizen residents

They aren’t citizens: As I’ve written before, this really depends on your definition of citizenship. In the strictly legal and tautological sense, yes, non-citizens aren’t citizens. But when one considers which people are stakeholders in the outcome of a given election, it’s easy to find cases in which someone who isn’t a legal citizen is as if not more deserving of a ballot than a legal citizen. For instance, an international student at the University of Virginia is much more likely to be affected by the outcome of the next Board of Supervisors race than I am while I’m abroad in Argentina, even if we both claim Albemarle County, Virginia as our place of residence. Why should I get to vote in that election while the student is banned?

This is effectively the argument in favor of maintaining the “one person, one vote” principle in its current form when the Supreme Court decides Evenwel v. Abbott later this year. In that case, the Court is being asked to let states exclude non-citizens and ineligible voters when drawing legislative district lines, which would deny those people what little representation they might have in indirectly influencing the process that selects the representatives that craft laws affecting them.

Decisions should be made by those who the decisions will affect. If that includes a 16 year-old immigrant, then so be it. That’s why decentralized democratic institutions, such as Cambridge’s participatory budget, don’t limit participation to adults or citizens. If democracy is to mean rule by the people, it should mean rule by the people — not rule by an arbitrary construct that doesn’t adequately reflect the body politic charged with ruling.

No but really, they aren’t citizens! One might object that granting voting to non-citizen residents could open the door for fraud or other types of abuse. Wouldn’t it be harder to verify that the people voting in local elections were eligible to vote in those elections?

Not really. The one major hurdle that granting non-citizens voting rights for local elections would pose is administrative: it requires the registrar to keep separate lists of who is eligible to vote in all elections and who is only allowed to vote in local elections. Kansas’s foray into separate voter rolls for federal versus state and local elections hasn’t gone so well, but that’s because Secretary of State Kris Kobach is actively trying to keep people from voting. Bureaucratic difficulties arising from Kansas’s separate voter rolls have been shown to be more a matter of choice than a matter of strained resources. What’s more, as FairVote’s Plier writes (of lowered voting ages, although the point can be extended to non-citizen voting rights), “administrative challenges should never mean compromising democratic values.”

However, none of those administrative challenges include any difficulty in verifying that people live where they say they live. Localities could, if they wanted, include proof of residency requirements for non-citizens who wished to vote in local elections (a recent utility bill or bank statement, or even a student ID) — either when registering or at the polls. These kinds of requirements would ensure that the “residents” component of “non-citizen residents” is maintained, and that non-citizens who live outside of the local jurisdictions in question can’t register and vote in their elections.

In any case, extending voting rights to non-adults and non-citizens in local elections may be a logistical challenge, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea. Maryland’s legislature should pass MC25-16 and give its municipalities the freedom to expand their local democracies.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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8 Responses to “We should let high schoolers and non-citizen residents vote in local elections”

  1. Lie Fabs says:

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  3. Melo11 says:

    16 is too early to vote, there are only kids in that age

  4. 2karmanot says:

    Exactly so

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  6. B00Z says:

    18 is fine…no need to lower the age for voting and it’s a joke to even consider giving the vote to non-citizens.

  7. Hue-Man says:

    The problem is that eligible voters are not showing up to vote. Perhaps 16 year old voters would prod their parents into voting. Maybe allowing green-card holders would motivate U.S. citizens to vote. I have zero faith that the Australian solution – mandatory voting – would ever be adopted.

    I remember that each school year we would study an election – federal, provincial, municipal – that was underway (we made notes with chalk on our slates). It taught us who could vote, how and where to vote, and the meaning of the electoral results. I don’t recall any suggestion of who to vote for. I was probably better-informed than most adults; I exercised my right to vote 5 months after turning 18. If I had been allowed to vote at 16, I don’t know that I would have acted any differently or with any more knowledge.

  8. BeccaM says:

    Sorry, but I can’t see the merits of either of these proposals.

    There is a young man who is sitting in a detention center in Mexico City because, although he murdered several people and permanently disabled another in a horrific DWI, the U.S. justice system deemed him a minor and as such lacking in the capacity to make adult decisions. Hence he didn’t end up in adult jail as he ought to have been, but was sentenced to probation terms he clearly lacked the maturity to obey anyway. (Didn’t help, of course, for his mother to be the enabling spoiler in his misdeeds, but there it is.)

    Is 18 years old an arbitrary number? Hell yes. Many states set that number higher for voting rights, until it was clear the Military-Industrial Complex needed young, undamaged bodies fresh out of high school to send off to wars–and it just so happened the majority of these young men were 18 years old (or close to it) at the time of draft or enlistment.

    But if someone at the age of 16 is going to have a voice in casting ballots–a privilege and right as a citizen–they then all also ought to be held to the level of responsibility in being charged as adults if they commit crimes. As long as 18 is that hard line between “child presumed most of the time to have diminished capacity and responsibility” and “adult, in all matters save drinking and possibly tobacco use), I’m not seeing why the voting age should be lowered. Why 16? Why not 14? Or 12?

    As for non-citizens being granted voting privileges, that makes even less sense to me.

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