Adulthood, as a milestone, is hard to quantify.
Teens can apply for a Maryland learner’s permit to drive starting at 15 years, 9 months. In most cases, Maryland criminal law says an 18-year-old is an adult. A person must be at least 21 to drink alcohol legally.
Nationally, the voting age was 21 before Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971 and three-fourths of the states ratified it. The new voting age became 18 — the same minimum for someone being drafted into war.
A History Channel website notes that Jennings Randolph, a Democratic congressman from West Virginia, started pushing to lower the voting age in 1942.
In recent years, Maryland has gone further to widen the pool of prospective voters. A bill that passed three years ago — sponsored by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park — lets people at least 16 years old register to vote.
In addition, if someone will be at least 18 years old by the time of a general or special election, he or she may vote in the preceding primary election. Almost half of all states follow this, according to FairVote, the Center for Voting and Democracy, in Takoma Park.
Takoma Park, known for its progressive and sometimes quirky ways, is considering taking an extra, historic step toward voting inclusiveness. The city might let 16-year-olds vote in municipal elections, when council members and the mayor are chosen.
Rob Richie, FairVote’s executive director, said Takoma Park would be the first in the country to adopt a 16-year-old voting age.
He said some 16-year-olds in Baltimore got to vote in a 2003 Baltimore City primary because they would have been 18 for the general election, which was 14 months later.
For Takoma Park, this is part of a series of proposed election-related charter amendments that will be the subject of a public hearing April 8.
One change is a minimum age for elected officials, who would need to be at least 18 to serve on the council or as mayor.
Lowering the voting age makes sense. A city resolution on the proposal sums it up: “Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to register and vote will enable them to fully participate in City elections while in high school and before leaving home, thereby encouraging them the establishment of a life-long habit of voting...”
A United Kingdom voting-rights organization called Votes at 16 says 16- and 17-year-olds already hold many responsibilities and should have a chance to “influence key decisions that affect their lives and ensure youth issues are represented.”
The organization’s website says 16-year-olds can vote in several countries, including Austria, Nicaragua, Brazil and Ecuador. In some places, they also must meet other conditions, such as being married in Hungary or employed in Slovenia.
The History Channel’s writeup about Randolph’s attempt to lower the voting age says: “The driving force behind Randolph’s efforts was his faith in America’s youth, of whom he believed: ‘They possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.’”
A teenager’s brain and thinking might not be fully developed, but there is far less risk in young voting than in young driving and young drinking.
Voting is a responsibility and a rite of maturity. The Takoma Park proposal could be considered a learner’s permit for democracy.
Richie said a study has shown that people who start voting while still living at home, before they move out on their own, are more likely to stick with it.
As long as someone is old enough to understand the issues, research the candidates and consider the repercussions of a decision — and many 16-year-olds can — voting is a deserved right.
Teens should cherish their voice in government and use it for the duration of their lives.