Should We Lower the Voting Age To 16—Or Raise It To 25?

Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? Students learn about the debate to lower - or raise - the age, and consider the pros and cons.  

To the Teacher

New York Congresswoman Grace Meng reintroduced legislation to lower the federal voting age to 16. But tech entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy argues that the voting age should be raised to 25 so young people assign “greater value to the act” of voting. 

In this lesson, students explore the history of political debates around the minimum age for voter eligibility and discuss contemporary arguments for raising or lowering the voting age. 

I voted stickers

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Reading One: 
How Did the Voting Age Become What It Is Today?

The question of whether to lower the federal voting age in the United States became a heated topic of debate during World War II. At the time, the voting age and draft age were both 21. When President Roosevelt decided to lower the draft age to 18 to increase the size of the army, advocates of lowering the voting age pushed for a corresponding change. If 18-year-olds were old enough to die for their country, the argument went, they were old enough to have a formal voice in America’s political system.

However, it was not until protests against the Vietnam War emerged in the late 1960s that the movement to lower the voting age gained greater political traction. Writing for Smithsonian Magazine in 2020, journalist Manisha Claire described the obstacles faced by the youth vote movement from the 1940s on, and how advocates eventually overcame them: 

One obstacle [was].... how American culture viewed teens and those in their early 20s, says Rebecca de Schweinitz, a history professor at Brigham Young University working on a book about youth suffrage. Most youth advocates, she says, were adult social reformers focused on creating greater access to secondary education, regulating child labor and providing services like welfare to young people. These reformers did not “talk about young people as independent agents,” who could handle the demands of adulthood, says de Schweinitz. “They talked and thought about them as people who needed to be cared for.”

Youth themselves were also not enthusiastic about gaining the right to vote. Polls, such as one covered in the Atlanta Constitution, showed 53 percent of American high school students opposed the proposal in 1943....

The idea simmered on the political backburner throughout the next two decades. In his 1954 State of the Union Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in favor of lowering the voting age….In 1963, President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation to help counter the U.S.’s low voter turnout in comparison to other Western countries like Denmark (at 85.5 percent) and Italy (at 92 percent). The commission recommended solutions such as expanding voter registration dates, abolishing poll taxes, making mail-in absentee voting easier and that “voting by persons 18 years of age should be considered by the states….”

At the same time, teenagers, who represented the earliest members of the large Baby Boomer generation, heavily involved themselves in political movements like the push for civil rights, campus free speech and women’s liberation. These flashpoints stood front and center in the public consciousness, showcasing the growing power of youth in directing the nation’s cultural conversations….

[By] 1968, according to a Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans agreed that “persons 18, 19, and 20 years old should be permitted to vote.”.... Youth suffrage became a unifying cause for diverse political interests, including the NAACP, Young Democrats and Young Republicans. Some groups had lobbied for the cause on their own, but in 1969, the activists seized on the rising tide of youth power in all areas of civil rights and brought their cause to Congress.


After several states including Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska and Hawaii lowered the voting age in response to public pressure, the Supreme Court decided in Oregon v. Mitchell that changes in the voting age could only be made at the federal level. The House and Senate responded by introducing the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in March of 1971. The amendment reached a two-thirds majority on July 1, 1971, officially lowering the federal voting age to 18 and giving the franchise to more than 10 million young people.

In the decades that have passed since, the lowering of the voting age has had significant impacts on our society. Youth voter organization Rock the Vote describes a variety of these impacts on their website: 

[F]ive decades after the ratification of the 26th Amendment, the United States has experienced unprecedented levels of youth voter turnout in recent elections. In the 2018 midterm elections, young people turned out to vote at the highest midterm levels since the ratification of the 26th Amendment. And, youth voter turnout in 2020 reached “one of the highest youth participation rates in decades.”

Similarly, just as the passage of the 26th Amendment was led by a movement of youth activists, the recent youth vote is often pointed to as a result of increasing youth activism around a host of issues that disproportionately impact young people. In the leadup to the 2020 federal election, racism and police brutality dominated youth-led activism, and young people have also built powerful advocacy movements around issues including climate change and gun violence.

In a recent post-election survey, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that “more than three-quarters of young people believe that they have the power and responsibility to change the country and that this work goes beyond elections.” Such a high level of youth political participation — which only begins with electoral politics — would not be possible without the important baseline of voting rights granted by the 26th Amendment.


Despite the advances made to enfranchise young people in the 26th Amendment, America’s youth continue to face significant hurdles to participation in our electoral system. Inaccessible polling locations and hours, lack of access to transportation, restrictive identification policies, and the impact of mass incarceration are all barriers that can make voting inaccessible for young people. Therefore, work to enable full participation of voters of all ages continues.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what were some of the barriers activists faced to lowering the voting age to 18? What were some of the reasons the movement was successful? Do you think 18-year-olds should have a voice in the political system? What about 16-year-olds?
  3. The reading mentions that adult youth advocates in the 1940s often saw young people as people to care for and not independent people that could handle the demands of adulthood. Based on your own experiences, do you think this attitude toward young people has changed?
  4. Apart from voting, what are other ways you think young people’s voices are heard by adults making decisions? Are there any ways you think the voices of young people are silenced or not heard by the adults governing this country?
  5. What lessons do you think activists pushing to lower the voting age today could take from the fight to win the 26th Amendment?
  6. The reading lists several obstacles that may continue hindering youth from participating in our democracy today. Which of these barriers do you think is most significant? What might be done to address them?


Reading Two: 
Should We Lower the Voting Age To 16—Or Raise It To 25?

Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? Many advocates and some elected officials think so. In January of this year, New York Congresswoman Grace Meng reintroduced legislation to lower the federal voting age to 16. Representative Meng argues that 16- and 17-year-olds, who have the right to drive and work, and who are required to pay federal taxes on their wages, should have the right to formally participate in our democracy as well.

In an April 2023 article for Texas Public Radio, journalist David Martin Davies described the current debate over this issue: 

One of the arguments for lowering the voting age to 16 is that it would increase the political engagement and participation of young people. Supporters argue that young people are often passionate and have a stake in many of the issues that affect their lives, such as education, healthcare, and the environment. By giving them the right to vote, it would give them a voice and a way to influence policy decisions.

On the other hand, opponents of lowering the voting age argue that 16-year-olds may not have the necessary life experience or maturity to make informed decisions. They also argue that many 16-year-olds are still in high school and may be influenced by their parents or teachers, which could lead to uninformed or coerced voting.

The proposal to lower the voting age is not being embraced by the conservative establishment because generally, younger voters in the United States tend to vote more liberal than older voters. This is reflected in the voting patterns of various age groups in recent elections.

For example, in the 2020 presidential election, data from exit polls showed that voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supported the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, over the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, by a margin of 61% to 36%. In contrast, voters aged 65 and older supported Trump over Biden by a margin of 52% to 47%.

Similarly, in the 2018 midterm elections, voters under the age of 30 favored Democratic candidates by a margin of 67% to 32%, while voters aged 65 and older favored Republican candidates by a margin of 51% to 47%. 


While advocates for lowering the voting age enjoy some support in Congress, other politicians are trying to push the voting age higher. Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a millennial running in the Republican presidential primary, would be the youngest president ever elected. Ramaswamy has argued on the campaign trail that the voting age should be raised to 25. He contends that those in the 18-to-25-year age range who want to vote should first be required to pass a civics test, similar to the tests currently taken during the naturalization process for new citizens. Under his plan, only members of the military and first responders such as police or firefighters would be allowed to vote at 18 without first passing a test.

Ramaswamy believes that such requirements would cause 18-to-25-year-olds to assign “greater value to the act” of voting. In contrast, critics have compared his proposal to the discriminatory testing requirements under Jim Crow laws. In a May 2023 article for the Washington Post, reporter Dylan Wells outlined these critiques, including from members of Ramaswamy’s own party: 

“If Republicans take action to disqualify 18-to-24-year-olds from voting, they’ll push Gen Z further away from the GOP and risk losing an entire generation of voters who won’t soon forget the party that disenfranchised them,” said Courtney Hope Britt, the national chairman of the College Republican National Committee.

“If the concern is that 18-year-olds don’t have adequate civics knowledge, then we need to address that issue and provide better civics education,” she added.

A Washington Post analysis of the census turnout survey found 26 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in the 2022 midterm election, though in 2020 a record high 53 percent of eligible voters under age 30 cast ballots….

Andrea Hailey, the CEO of nonpartisan, called [Ramaswamy’s] proposal “nothing more than demographic gerrymandering” and “a sad attempt to shape the electorate rather than letting the American people shape our government…”

“It is absolutely outrageous that it’s even being proposed to disenfranchise literally millions of young Americans, and it is not lost, I think on a lot of young people that this also happens to be the most diverse generation in American history,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the executive director of NextGen America, a liberal group focused on young voters. “This is an explicit attempt to hold on to power by any means and block young people who reject the Republican Party almost wholesale from voting.” 


The discussion of whether to raise or lower the voting age could have significant consequences, impacting not only the total voter turnout but the results of elections as well. Although casting ballots in elections is not the only way to make your voice heard in our society, a lot is at stake when it comes to decisions about who is allowed to vote.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some of the arguments in favor of lowering the voting age today? What did you think of these arguments?
  3. What do you think about Vivek Ramaswamy’s position that young people need more civics education to be able to vote responsibly? Is this a real problem? If so, how should it be addressed?
  4. If voters under 25 were required to pass a civics test in order to participate in our democracy, what do you think the impacts would be on our political system? Conversely, what do you think the impact would be if the voting age were lowered to 16?
  5. After considering different viewpoints on this issue, do you think the federal voting age should be raised, that it should be lowered, or that it should stay the same? Explain your position.


—Research assistance provided by Sophia Zaia