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Lower voting age for local elections

A key tenet of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been his ability to appeal to young people, and thus expand the electorate. Or so he hoped: The Vermont senator has found that convincing the TikTok demographic to show up at the polls in surging numbers is, in fact, quite challenging.

“Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in?” he said the day after Super Tuesday, when he got clobbered by former Vice President Joe Biden in several crucial states. “The answer is no.”

It may not help this presidential election cycle, but one promising way to boost turnout over time is to lower the voting age in local-only elections from 18 to 16, to help young people form the habit of voting. It can also serve as a way to familiarize teens with the voting process and get them onto the voter rolls, without changing who can vote in state or national elections. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction in Brookline, Concord, Cambridge and a few other Massachusetts municipalities. Lawmakers have introduced legislation on Beacon Hill that would ease the way for municipalities to voluntarily experiment with a lower voting age, and the idea deserves approval.

Lowering the voting age to 16 is not as radical as it might sound. Youth at 16 are still developing emotionally and may struggle with impulse control, but they are no less equipped with the deliberative skills needed to vote than 40- or 60-year-olds. “There is strong empirical evidence that the cognitive processes required for competent voting reliably mature by age 16,” according to a 2012 review of cognitive research on adolescents.

In Massachusetts, letting 16- and 17-year-olds cast a ballot in local races would be a natural result of an enhanced civics education curriculum, which the state passed into law in 2018. The new law includes, among other things, a first-in-the-nation requirement that 8th-graders and high school students complete a nonpartisan civics project on a local, state or federal policy issue.

Voting takes effort and practice. A 16-year-old allowed to vote in local elections is more likely to become a future voter in presidential contests by the time they turn 18, the federal voting age, and in every subsequent election. Young adults at 16 are at a prime age to learn the ropes of being citizens and to recognize the impact their vote can have. For a generation that’s suffering from their elders’ inability to solve problems, from gun violence to climate change, they need all the help they can get. And at a time when voting rights have become fragile, any idea to reinvigorate democracy is worth exploring.

* Guest editorial from The Boston Globe in Boston, Mass.