Oregon voters may soon get to decide whether to lower the voting age to 16.

A bill introduced by Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-Portland) would put that question on the 2020 ballot, and if passed would make Oregon the first state in the country to lower the age to 16.

Pro: Start early to create engaged citizens

The mid-to-late teenage years are a formative time. Habits take root — for good and for ill — and new ideas are considered and explored.

As adults, we too often dismiss these years as a reckless time when decision-making is at its most suspect. The part of the brain that calculates consequences isn’t fully developed, so we assume every decision is driven by impulse instead of reason.

But we’re only kidding ourselves if we think citizens 18 and older are cognitively better equipped to select representation or enact laws than a 16-year-old.

The question isn’t about brain power, it’s about practical application.

There are great benefits in lowering the voting age so that those teens who are empowered to work like adults, drive like adults and in most other ways participate in society as adults get in the habit of other civic duties.

In the same way we raised the age of legal use for tobacco, alcohol and marijuana to 21 to protect teenagers from harmful habits, we should lower the voting age to 16 to encourage healthy ones.

The truth is, our democracy needs a boost, and high school upperclassmen are a great place to start. They’re engaged in civics classes, surrounded by peers of different cultures and backgrounds and able to process the gray area of an issue that their parents often have given up on.

They also have a stake in the outcome. Many join the workforce in high school, which brings both a paycheck and tax withdrawals. We’re quick to require the financial burden of being a citizen but slow to give the full rights — a theme for this country over the centuries.

High school students also have a valuable perspective on education, which could prove helpful when selecting school board candidates and deciding on bond measures. While they don’t pay property taxes, many will by the time a bond comes off the books.

But mostly, we’re interested in creating better informed and more engaged citizens. Oregon’s motor voter law makes it an easy equation — get a license, get registered to vote. Many Oregonians — especially those under 30 — pass on the right to vote as it is, and there’s no reason to think the 16-18 demographic would buck that trend.

But by getting the ballot early, learning about the issues and candidates in a civics class, and having the option to cast a vote, we’ll be training students in the ways of a good citizen.

Con: Voting is a matter of motivation, not just maturity

With Oregon Democrats emboldened by the confidence that a supermajority affords, this legislative session is marked by an ambitious agenda full of bold policy proposals. These heightened levels of innovation and creativity are exactly the qualities we want to see in our legislators. Vigorous engagement within the marketplace of ideas is the bedrock of a healthy democracy.

That said, when any political party realizes the benefits of controlling both legislative chambers along with the governor’s mansion, it becomes even more important to exercise temperate and cautious judgment. While there is an admirable quality to the initiative to lower the voting age and grow the democratic process, it would be a mistake to move forward.

There’s no denying that many 16-year-olds are technically equipped with the cognitive maturity to make sound judgments. We understand, however, that adolescence is a complicated time in our intellectual and emotional development. Adding the unique challenges and importance inherent to the practice of voting to an already delicate developmental period creates an unnecessary risk not justified by the potential benefit.

While typically a 16-year-old adolescent is able to make sound logical decisions, voting is too important and too complex to confidently experiment with in the way this initiative requires. This risky approach would do a great disservice to the young people it’s intended to benefit.

Unique to this particular stage of development and critical to our analysis is what psychologists call a “maturity gap.” Anchored by the understanding that cognitive maturity and emotional maturity develop at a different pace — the latter fully developing often several years after the former — a gap in maturity levels often exists. But both are critical to the act of voting.

Cognitive maturity may be adequate if the act were in a vacuum; however, emotional maturity influences critical elements as well. For example, motivation to engage in the political process may take longer for an individual to develop than the intellectual capacity to do so. Another example is that adolescents developing their emotional maturity often would be more susceptible to influences like peer pressure, which in turn could lead to counterintuitive decisions against one’s own interest.

Perhaps the most convincing of all comes from the intuition of these young people themselves, many of whom don’t believe at that age they are well enough informed or motivated to be afforded the privilege of voting.

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