© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Missouri teens want to lower the voting age to 16 in local and school elections

Voting polls on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, at the Central Library in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Voting polls on April 5, 2022, at the Central Library in downtown St. Louis.

A statewide teen group wants to lower the voting age for local and school board elections to 16.

“We’re asking 16-year-olds to take this government class and to do this one small unit on local government, and then save it for two years and apply it to their lives,” said DJ Yearwood, 16, the leader of Vote16MO. “We could be doing it right now, while it’s intimate and impactful to them the most.”

He also said it amounts to taxation without representation since Missouri teens pay millions of dollars a year in taxes but can’t vote.

In March, the Kansas City teen launched Vote16MO. He said he believes extending voting rights to young people would strengthen civic education and engagement, citing research that voting in one election makes someone 25% more likely to cast a ballot in the next.

Yearwood also thinks lowering the voting age would help with teenagers’ transition to adulthood.

“In the current system, 18-year-olds are launched into the political process at all levels, all party politics," he said. "They have no chance to really digest what governance is [without] party politics.”

He said he believes introducing youth to nonpartisan school board and municipal elections will teach them to evaluate representatives without the influence of party politics.

That’s why Yearwood stressed the initiative’s nonpartisan roots.

Vote16MO is working with Missouri lawmakers to introduce legislation in the next session. Yearwood said the bill has both a Republican and a Democratic sponsor, but he said he couldn’t reveal them yet.

Yearwood said he hopes to see a measure to lower the voting age on the November 2024 ballot.

But Vote16MO’s campaign doesn’t have the support of the state’s top election official.

“How do we say this is where the divide is?” asked Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. “What if a 14-year-old is working on the family farm earning money? Are we saying that they should be voting?”

Ashcroft said allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote only in municipal elections would require the state to maintain two voter registration lists. But he said that shouldn’t be the sole reason not to pass the measure.

He also questioned whether youth have enough life experience to make informed choices on Election Day.

“I think it's reasonable to say we want you to be a little bit older, we want you to have a little bit more of the level of responsibility that other people have,” he said.

In St. Louis, Vote16MO’s assistant campaign director, Lexi Kreisler, 17, said teenagers are forced to carry heavy responsibilities.

Kreisler said many St. Louisans want change after another shooting downtown killed one teen and injured 11 others last weekend. She argued teenagers are among the most affected by such events.

“Gun violence especially is plaguing youth right now in St. Louis,” she said. “I think it would directly impact youth [to] be able to have a say on gun violence and things like that.”

If Missouri were to pass legislation lowering the voting age, it wouldn’t be the first. In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, extended voting rights to 16-year-olds after the state passed a law allowing its cities to do so.

According to Vote16USA, the umbrella organization for Missouri’s campaign, voter turnout for 16- and 17-year-olds in Takoma Park has averaged over 40%, which is nearly double the city’s overall turnout.

Kreisler and Yearwood both said they are encouraged by such statistics.

“I think it's a really, really good idea to get youth voices heard through the voting system,” Kreisler said.

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.