Legal Voting Age in the United States

Encourage your teenager to vote.

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Turning 18 is a monumental time in a young person's life. Typically, they are graduating from high school and either going off to college or entering the workforce. What's more, if they are a male, they will have registered for selective service as well.

But, perhaps one of the most exciting things 18-year-olds can do is exercise their right to vote. They will finally have a say in what happens in the country. The key, of course, is registering to do so.

The U.S. Voting Age

In many states, teens in the U.S. can register to vote during the year that they will turn 18. So, even when teens don't turn 18 until December, they can register to vote any time during the calendar year. Some states even allow teens to pre-register as young as 16, even though they cannot vote in an election until they are 18. Check your state's official voter registration page in order to find the most up-to-date information about registering to vote.

Once your teen is able to register, follow the guidelines suggested by your state. Many states now allow teens to register online. Keep in mind, even when kids are away at college, they must register to vote in the state in which they live. Most of the time, this is where their parents live.

Initially, teens may not have an interest in registering to vote. Still, you should encourage them to register. The right to vote is one of the most significant freedoms this country offers and should not be taken for granted. Additionally, talk to teens about the importance of becoming an educated voter. Encourage them to think carefully about the issues and candidates on the ballot. 

17-Year-Olds and Primary Elections

A third of the states in the U.S. allow 17-year-olds to participate in primary elections if they will turn 18 on or before election day. As of 2018, states that allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections include Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. The District of Columbia also allows 17-year-old voting. Some states may even allow 17-year-olds to vote in caucuses as well. See your state's official voting guidelines to determine what they allow and don't allow.

The History of the U.S. Voting Age

Prior to 1970, American citizens needed to be 21 in order to vote. But, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in March 1971, and the states quickly ratified it. In July 1971, President Richard M. Nixon signed it into law.

The argument for lowering the legal voting age from 21 to 18 began during World War II. Many argued that if young men could be drafted to fight in a war, they should be able to vote. This argument came back into the spotlight for the same reason in 1970 during the Vietnam War.

Today, many youth rights activists argue that the voting age should be lowered to 17, or even 16. They argue that it will give teenagers a chance to become involved in politics early and create lifetime voters.

The Voting Age in Other Countries

The United States is not alone in requiring citizens to be 18 to cast a vote. The majority of countries in the world also have an 18-year-old voting age. Austria, Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua are among countries that allow 16-year-olds to vote; and a handful of countries allow 17-year-olds to vote. A few countries still do not allow voting until the age of 20 or 21.

Should the U.S. Voting Age Be Lowered?

Voting age has been a widely debated topic in the U.S. Proponents say teenagers as young as 16 should be allowed to participate in government elections, arguing that doing so would increase voter turnout, promote civic engagement, and let teens have a say in their futures.

However, critics argue that younger teenagers won't get involved in elections and do not have the skills to cast quality votes. According to one poll, the majority of Americans are opposed to allowing teens younger than 18 to vote. In fact, 75% of registered voters are opposed to allowing 17-year-olds to participate in elections. Meanwhile, 84% are opposed to allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

However, research on countries with younger voting ages indicates that 16-year-olds are just as motivated to participate in elections as their older counterparts. The research also shows that teens have the ability to cast votes that represent their best interests.

Encourage Your Teen to Get Involved

In order to ensure that teens exercise their right to vote, get them excited about politics at an early age. In fact, many teens are taking on activist roles while they are still in high school. They are organizing protests, writing letters, giving speeches, and running social media campaigns about issues that are important to them.

To encourage your teen's interest in political issues and candidates, talk about any upcoming elections. Discuss ballot issues and talk about how voters create change. You also can discuss the different candidates who are running. Encourage your teen to research what each of the candidates stand for. And talk about how your teen's personal value systems influence choices.

When teens express opinions contrary to yours, don't argue. Show them that you are a good listener and that you value their opinion. Part of becoming their own person may involve thinking differently than you do. The earlier teens begin thinking about these things, the more likely they'll be to vote when they're old enough.

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