Ayanna Pressley is introducing legislation to lower the federal voting age

While some cities and states have looked at expanding local voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds, Pressley says they should be able to participate in elections for Congress and the White House.

Committee member Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., listens to testimony by Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley listens to testimony by Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing last week. –Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Rep. Ayanna Pressley thinks 16 year olds should have a say in who the country sends to Washington, D.C. — and she’s filing legislation to make it a reality.

The freshman Massachusetts congresswoman introduced a simple amendment Wednesday to H.R. 1 — a sweeping government reform bill the House is considering this week — that would lower the national minimum voting age from 18 to 16. If passed, the change would require states to allow 16 and 17-year-old U.S. citizens  to vote in federal elections (i.e. the House, Senate, and presidency) beginning in 2020.

Pressley cited youth-led political activism on issues from gun control to climate change as one of the reasons for her proposal. The Dorchester Democrat, whose 7th District includes much of Boston, herself attended and spoke at the Youth Justice Rally last month on the Common, during which students called for increased investment in youth jobs and education.

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“Our young people are at the forefront of some of the most existential crises facing our communities and our society at large,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “I believe that those who will inherit the nation we design here in Congress by virtue of our policies and authority should have a say in who represents them.”

Of course, even if the Democrat-controlled House votes to adopt the amendment, H.R. 1 faces long odds of becoming law during the current two-year congressional session. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, said Monday that he has no plans to allow the larger bill (which would reform campaign finance, ethics, and voting rights laws) to even get a vote in his chamber.

Pressley first introduced her amendment to lower the voting age during a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday, and the idea is hardly unprecedented.

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age for federal, state, and local elections from 21 to 18. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat, argued at the time that getting the country’s youth to participate in the democratic process was “the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation.”

According to FairVote, 16 states allow 17 year olds to vote in congressional primaries if they’re 18 by the date of the general election. Twenty-four states have the same rule for participating in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses, while 19 do so on the Republican side.

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Over the course of the last few decades, lawmakers across the country, including in Massachusetts, have begun considering proposals to lower the voting age for local elections to 16 (or lower). Takoma Park, Maryland became the first city to allow 16 year olds to vote in 2013. Two other Maryland cities and Berkeley, California have also since lowered the voting age for certain local elections to 16.

A bill to lower the voting age in Washington, D.C. to 16 for presidential elections was narrowly defeated last November. Massachusetts and Oregon are currently considering bills expanding local voting rights for 16 and 17 year olds.

Pressley’s amendment would only apply to elections for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and president. That’s because the Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that Congress had the authority to change the voting age for federal elections — but not for state and local elections (hence the necessity of the 26th Amendment). Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat who testified in support of Pressley’s amendment Tuesday, proposed a constitutional amendment last year to lower the voting age to 16 for all elections.

In her testimony Tuesday, Pressley made the point that 16 year olds are already allowed the responsibility to drive a car, get a job, and pay taxes.

“The time has come: Our young people deserve to have the opportunity to have their right to vote,” she said. “We celebrate them often and lift them up as foot soldiers of movements. We thank them for their sweat equity that they expend at the forefront of change, and they should have the opportunity to be respected and celebrated as ballot-casters.”

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