Today is Election Day and we, as 16 and 17-year-olds, do not have the right to vote for matters that impact us more than anyone.
We are allowed to work, which means we pay taxes, but our voices are not heard. Gun violence in schools impacts us directly–some reports estimate there have been more than 35 school shootings in 2022 alone. And the climate crisis impacts us, too: a survey found that 45% of young people ages 16 to 25 who responded said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives and rated “governmental responses to climate change negatively.”
But according to a recent Tufts Circle study, we aren’t given the opportunity to vote for candidates who will make the changes we want to happen.
Young people who are old enough to vote face significant barriers to doing so: according to a UCSF study, young voters experience challenges arranging their work or school schedules, knowing where to vote, finding transportation, and needing help with questions about candidates and ballots. Despite this, during 2018 and 2020 elections there were significant increases to youth voter turnout. How can we build on that and ensure young people get the chance to start making real, lasting change for issues we are passionate about?
What the Research Shows
Lowering the voting age is not unheard of in America; in 1971 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. By lowering the voting age to sixteen, we have the opportunity to improve civic engagement in Kentucky and let young Kentuckians have a say in their futures.
Joshua Douglas, professor of law at University of Kentucky, told The New Edu that studies show that engaging young people early in life will increase the likelihood that they will become lifelong voters. "A few cities in the U.S, in California and Maryland, already let 16 and 17-year-olds vote in local or school board elections. This is a smart policy to engage young people and create lifelong voters. Schools are improving civics education in these places, meaning that these young people are better informed about civic engagement,” Douglas said.
Research from Vote16 USA, a project of Generation Citizen, shows that lowering the voting age makes voting a habit, that sixteen and seventeen-year-olds are affected by the decisions of elected officials, and that lowering the voting age can strengthen civics education. Plus, in cities that lowered the voting age, turnout among 16 and 17-year-old voters is typically higher than the next highest age group, Douglas explained. “Young people have an important voice in politics. After all, they will deal with the consequences of today's policy decisions for years to come,” he said.
Sara Falluji, a senior from Fayette County and a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, believes the voting age should be lowered to sixteen. Falluji explained that many classmates have developed political opinions of their own, rather than just absorbing their family’s or not being invested. Plus, Falluji pointed out that Kentucky schools often have students taking a U.S. Government and Politics class, which means “people have already started to build an idea of issues that they care about and understand the importance of voting as a whole. This plus high school being a time where people in general develop more individualized opinions that may differ or agree with the opinions voiced in their environment means that by the age of 16, a vast majority of people are eagerly looking forward to voting in a few coming years,” Falluji said. “Even if people didn't care as much, I feel like it's still worth it to allow the sixteen year olds who care enough to go to the polls and cast their ballot to have that voice.”
In an article published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Zachary Clifton, a junior at Corbin High School and member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, elaborated on the importance of allowing 16 year-olds to vote. “Lowering the voting age means that young people could “vote in an election prior to leaving their communities,” Clifton wrote, explaining that they could develop “the voting habit at a time when they can more easily overcome the barriers to voting. This makes them more likely to continue voting in the future.”
What is at Stake for Young People in Kentucky
While we tend to think of Federal issues when we consider voting, we should also consider local and state issues as well.
At the state level, mental health is an issue for Kentucky teens. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Survey of Children’s Health, at least 16% of Kentucky children ages 3 to 17 have depression or anxiety, the sixth highest rate in the nation. The rate has increased by nearly one-third since 2016. While Kentucky has made strides toward addressing the mental health epidemic, such as allowing students to take mental health days off from school, there is much more work to be done. The majority of teens in Kentucky either deal with mental health issues themselves or know someone who is affected. We are the best group in Kentucky to speak to what is needed in schools to make a significant impact on mental health.
Locally, the decisions made by school boards impact students even though we have no say in those decisions. Money is allocated based on the decisions of adults on the board. Students are the ones attending classes every day and interacting with peers and adults in the schools. We are the ones who would be the best equipped to see what is needed to help make students successful, but we are not given a voice to express those needs.
Today, Kentucky is voting on Amendment 2. If Amendment 2 passes, it clears the road for a total ban on abortion without exception for rape, incest, or the life of the pregnant person. Those past childbearing age are given the right to make a decision today that could be life altering for countless Kentucky teens.
“As a whole, the subject of abortion is something that intrinsically includes broader conversations about religious freedom, right to privacy, and gender equality, and [we] absolutely should listen to the perspectives of more people than just those who are discussing the amendment itself,” Falluji pointed out. “It's even more critical that we allow people within the childbearing age–yes, including 16 and 17- year olds– to have a voice in something that can significantly impact their life.”
Teens should have a say in issues such as this that directly impacts us. Kentucky teens have life experiences that most of our parents have never dealt with at our age. We have felt the effects of climate change from flooding, tornadoes, and droughts. Many of us walk through metal detectors every day as we enter our school doors and have experienced school violence. We make up a significant part of the workforce earning minimum wage, which results in the economy impacting us at a significant level.
As teens, we can come together to address issues in our communities, state, and country by forming grassroot colations. These groups advocate for change and are able to support each other in their efforts by canvassing, sharing petitions, and protesting. While grassroot coalitions are a great way for teens to advocate, having governmental representation is unparalleled. Having politicians in office that represent the voice of Kentucky teens gives us the power to ensure that laws are put into place that reflect the world we want for ourselves now and in the future. In order to make systemic and lasting change, we have to have politicians in office that represent us. Just think what that could do for the youth of Kentucky.
Sarah Umbarger is a junior at Marshall County High School and a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team Press Corps. She is Editor-In-Chief for KYA HS 3, serves on the KDE’s Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council, the youth advisory board for UK's #icanendthetrend program, and the KY YMCA Board of Directors. Sarah is also President of the Student-Y and Co-founder of Substance Abuse Safe Space at Marshall County High School.