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Oregon Explores Early Voting

April 5th, 2019 by dk

Should Oregon lower the age for voter participation to 16? The most common argument I hear against the change is that 16-year-olds are still children. That might turn out to be the strongest argument in its favor.

Most 16-year-olds are still in high school and almost all of them are still living with their parents. Two years later, when they reach the current minimum voting age, most of these young people hope to have moved out of their childhood home, either to attend college or to begin their working lives.

When would society prefer to introduce this important privilege and responsibility of citizenship? Shortly after a person has left home for the first time and is completely on their own, surrounded by peers who are in the same predicament? Or while they’re taking history classes in high school, attending mandatory school assemblies, and are still under the watchful eyes of their parents?

Habits that form early are the hardest habits to break. Abundant research shows that voting is like smoking in this way. If you become a smoker while you are still assembling your self-image, you tend to stay a smoker forever, or until some dramatic life change intervenes. The same appears to be true about voting. If a teenager considers him or herself a voter, the habit and self-image will reinforce one another forever.

Will teenagers make mature decisions? Not always, but the chances are better when they are being watched by those who can cut their allowance or give them a failing grade. We don’t seem hesitant to eat a burger flipped, or to accept change counted by a 16-year-old. Supervision allows order to be maintained.

Those who hold jobs pay taxes. Give them a share in societal decision-making. They might not make the same choices as we would, but they will differ earnestly. They may do more research on ballot issues than many older people. Whenever a 16-year-old drives a car, every driver on that road shares the risks caused by their inclusion. Why should society in general be any different?

I can’t think of a better way to revitalize how history and rhetoric are taught in the schools. The lessons and techniques would suddenly seem much less abstract. Citizenship itself would become less a concept than a practice. Imagine how real our school funding debates would become when students still in those schools had a voice on Election Day.

Take it one step further. How many parents of wide-eyed teenagers would suddenly feel an urgency to vote that they hadn’t felt before? They might bone up on issues for dinner table debates with their children. They may vote in order to zero out their own child’s idealism. That would still be more empowering than non-voting — for everyone involved.

Empowerment without supervision is what we should be trying to reduce, especially for teenagers. Watch a group of college freshmen struggling with ready access to alcohol and tell me their habits wouldn’t be healthier if they began when parental supervision was still firmly in place.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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