Election Day is when U.S. citizens exercise their right to vote for policies and political leaders. Starting from age 18 (and sometimes younger), they can register to vote. In Pennsylvania, the largest age groups of registered voters are in the 25 to 34 and 55 to 64 categories, with each one representing 17% of registered voters, for a total of 34%. In contrast, the smallest group of registered voters was the 18 to 24 cohort, representing 8% of registered voters.
In Philadelphia, the results are similar. The largest bloc of registered voters is those ages 25 to 34, with 254,479 voters (25%), and the smallest defined voting group is once again between the ages of 18 to 24, with a total of 83,386 voters (8%). Even accounting for the inconsistency in group size and population spread, younger registered voters make up a disproportionately smaller percentage of the total voting pool.
Youth in Philadelphia and across the country are becoming more civically engaged and speaking out on issues that affect them, from calls for gun reform and the need to address climate change to city wide walk outs in support of Palestine. So why do young voters represent such a disproportionately low rate of voters compared to the amount of youth that are eligible to vote?
According to Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Pennsylvania has some of the highest youth participation, with an increase in turnout of 19.5% from 2014 to 2022 (a total of 31.7%) for voting eligible 18 to 29-year-olds. Youth in Philadelphia have many opportunities for civic engagement: attending candidate forums, writing letters to lawmakers, attending school-wide assemblies, and more.
A push to lower the voting age has been a topic in multiple cities as well. San Francisco and Boston are two examples of cities that considered or are considering allowing 16-year-olds to vote. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) has studied and supported this cause. 16- and 17-year-olds can be tried as adults in court or legal processing, as well as pay taxes and drive, which are responsibilities often associated with being an adult, yet these age groups are denied voting privileges. Lowering the voting age would mean that 16- and 17-year-olds would gain two years of experience in voting prior to graduating high school, and could lead younger citizens to become more engaged and educated on political issues. Following the engagement of younger voters, lowering the voting age also has many benefits as voting is habitual. Casting a ballot once increases the likelihood that you will vote again next time. Allowing individuals to vote at 16 or 17 not only emboldens youth to become more civically engaged, but also increases the likelihood that they will vote after high school, instead of voting for the first time during a major transition period in life (getting a full-time job and/or pursuing higher education).
Many arguments against lowering the legal voting age often revolve around the idea that 16- and 17-year-olds do not know enough about civics or have the maturity or neurological capacity to think for themselves, often being influenced by parents, teachers, and friends. However, a study by Daniel Hart and David Atkins shows that members of this age group have roughly the same political knowledge as 21-year-olds and other legally enfranchised peoples, making the laws around who gets to vote in the US more or less arbitrary. Additionally, when we turn to developmental science, scientists distinguish between two different types of cognition: “hot” cognition, which occurs in decisions which are made under the influence of a group, under stress, or in a hurry, and “cold” cognition, which describes decisions that are made when people have time and can make reasoned judgements. While a 16-year-old may not be very good at making decisions that require “hot” cognition, they are just as capable of making decisions that require “cold” cognition. Studies also show that logical reasoning matures by the age of 15. All voters, regardless of age, are constantly being influenced by outside forces and to insist that individuals under the age of 18 are incapable of voting due to their proximity to influence is a hypocritical argument. Schools don’t just teach different issue areas that are relevant to youth, they also teach students how to find reliable information and sources that can best inform voting decisions. Additionally, studies have shown that the independent, analytical, and empathetic abilities in 16- and 17-year-olds are developed enough for them to make these decisions on their own.
As issues that require cross cultural and generational collaboration become more pressing, we must realize the importance of encouraging youth to pursue civic responsibility, championing campaigns for voting reform and pioneering the way for progressive policies that work to address the issues that matter to youth. As we look towards the impacts that adults can have, we encourage all to consider lowering the voting age, setting up the youth of tomorrow for success and a lifetime of civic engagement.
Jessica Yu | [email protected]
Jessi Yu is a current junior undergraduate student at Dartmouth College working as an intern with the Business Development and Marketing team at ESI. She anticipates graduating in 2025 with degrees in sociology and government.
Maggie Jiang |[email protected]
Maggie Jiang is a current third year student attending Drexel University working as an intern with the Business Development & Marketing team at ESI. She anticipates graduating in 2026 with a degree in marketing.