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Informed Citizens

are Better Citizens

by Michael Barbella

Are you itching to cast a ballot in your first election? If you’re 17, you may get the chance. New Jersey may be joining a growing number of states that are expanding electoral rights by adjusting the state voting age.

Americans have been debating the legal voting age since World War II. The dialogue intensified during the Vietnam War, and eventually culminated with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971.

The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and prevents qualified individuals from being denied the right to vote due to their age. It does not address lowering the voting age below 18, nor does it prevent individual states or municipalities from adjusting the voting age for state or local elections.

The New Jersey Constitution grants voting rights to those aged 18 and older, but it does not prohibit extending those rights to citizens younger than 18. In a USA Today opinion piece, posted on northjersey.com, University of Kentucky law professor Joshua A. Douglas, an expert on election law and voting rights, wrote about New Jersey’s constitution.

“This state [New Jersey] constitutional language grants the right to vote instead of limiting it to certain individuals. Thus, the constitution confers voting rights to those who are 18 and meet the residency requirements, but it does not explicitly exclude anyone from voting,” Professor Douglas wrote. “The voting qualifications are a floor, not a ceiling. Those who are 18 and residents are voters in the state, but nothing in the constitutional language suggests that the state cannot confer voting rights to additional people.”

Calling all 17-year-olds

Under current New Jersey law, 17-year-olds can register to vote but they cannot legally cast a ballot in a general election or primary until they turn 18. In May 2023, the New Jersey State Assembly passed legislation, in a bipartisan 54 to 24 vote, which would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they turn 18 by the next general election and meet all other electoral requirements (U.S. citizen, state resident). The measure now goes to the New Jersey State Senate for consideration.

“If someone is able to cast their vote in the November general election, they should be able to participate in the preceding primary election,” New Jersey State Assemblyman William F. Moen Jr., the bill’s primary sponsor, told news outlets. “It’s important to get young people involved in the political process so that our democracy can continue to thrive.”

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they reach legal age by the next succeeding general election, according to National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) data. Ohio’s law is the oldest, enacted in 1981 and Utah’s 2018 law is the most recent. New Jersey is not the only state that is considering adjusting its voting age. Similar legislation has been introduced in Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and Oklahoma, according to Vote16USA, a national campaign that supports efforts to lower the voting age at the local level. New Mexico lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this year to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to register to vote; however, action on the measure has been indefinitely postponed.

If adopted by the State Senate and signed into law by the Governor, the New Jersey bill would take effect January 1 of the next year.

Not everyone is on board

This is the Garden State’s second attempt to extend voting rights to 17-year-olds. Seven years ago in 2016, similar legislation was passed by the State Assembly and Senate, but was vetoed by then Governor Chris Christie. Not everyone is on board this time either.

State Assemblyman Edward H. Thomson has been the most vocal objector to the bill, specifically calling into question teenagers’ interest level in politics and their maturity. Assemblyman Thomson said he did not support the 1971 U.S. Constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, even though he had just reached the legal age that year.

“I can’t support going less than that, especially when you’re talking about a primary, which, in my opinion, is the most important part of the election process,” Assemblyman Thomson told the Trenton radio station WKXW.

Proponents of lowering the voting age, however, claim Thomson’s arguments are unfounded, referencing research indicating both 16- and 17-year-olds have the necessary civic knowledge, skills and cognitive ability to vote responsibly. Youth-led group Vote16USA cites a study, published in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, titled “American Sixteen- and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote,” that found no significant differences in voting qualities—civic knowledge, political skills, and political interest—between 16- and 18-year-olds. Research also suggests that voting is habitual, and new habits are formed more easily at age 16 than at 18.

“Humans are fallible. Yes, 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds are going to be manipulated. But I’m not sure that 18-year-olds are all that much better. I don’t know that you can draw the line at 18,” says Shauna Shames, Ph.D., a political science professor at Rutgers University whose primary academic interest is American politics. “Faulty reasoning that you fear can happen in a democracy can happen at any age. People can be taught to reason well at 15, just as they can be at 30. One can argue that being given the right to vote is a good reason to pay attention more.”

Scholars and advocates argue that although maturity levels are a worthwhile barometer of voting capacity, other factors should be considered as well, including civics education improvement, voter turnout, national policy impacts, and fairness.

Perry Dane, a constitutional law professor at Rutgers University Law School in Camden, contends that in theory, some teenagers might be mature enough to vote while some 25-year-olds might not be mature enough to vote. He points out that, according to neurologists, the frontal cortex of the brain, which controls executive brain functions and limits impulsive behavior, does not fully develop until around age 25.

“But we don’t try to assess individual maturity that way, nor should we,” Professor Dane says. “And we don’t expect any voters to be entirely or perfectly ‘mature.’”

The legal voting age is a product of history, according to Professor Dane, and when Congress and individual states have changed the voting age in the past, they’ve relied on a variety of arguments, including some related to the ‘maturity’ of potential voters, while others were based on considerations of fairness.

“For example, a major spur for lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 [with the 26th Amendment] was that anyone old enough to fight and die in Vietnam should be old enough to vote,” Professor Dane says. He also points out that the voting age in other parts of the world has recently been lowered below 18.

“The voting age for local and Parliamentary elections in Scotland is now 16,” Professor Dane notes. “I doubt those kids are more mature or less subject to manipulation than American kids. But the Scottish government made a judgment that, in the context of their society, 16 was a sensible minimum age for voting.”

Conflicting ideas for the national voting age

On the campaign trail, Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and somewhat longshot candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has pushed his proposal for raising the national voting age for some to 25. Under Ramaswamy’s plan, as reported in The Washington Post, “those who serve in the military or work as a first responder in areas such as police or fire for at least six months could still vote at 18. Otherwise, to vote before turning 25, citizens would be required to pass a civics test that mirrors the exam required for naturalization.”

On the other end of the spectrum, U.S. Representative Grace Meng of New York, has reintroduced legislation in the House of Representatives to lower the national voting age to 16.

“Over the past few years, we have seen the influence young people in our nation have on trends, political movements and elections. They continue to advocate for many crucial issues which they are deeply passionate about,” Representative Meng said in a press release. “It is time to give them a voice in our democracy and reward their passion so that their voices are heard at the ballot box. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are legally permitted to work, drive and they also pay federal income taxes. They are contributing members of our society, and I believe it is right and fair to allow them to vote in our elections.”

Both proposals at the national level are unlikely to gain traction as they would require a constitutional amendment. In order to amend the U.S. Constitution, two-thirds of both the U.S. House of Representative and U.S. Senate would need to approve the amendment before sending it to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of state legislatures need to ratify a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution has not been amended since 1992.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think of New Jersey attempting to lower the voting age (for primaries) to 17?
  2. Review the national voting age proposals mentioned in the article. Would you advocate for lowering the national voting age or raising it? What voting age do you think is appropriate? Explain your answer.
  3. Are you eager to vote? Why or why not?

Glossary Words
— supported by two political parties.
naturalization—attaining citizenship to a country someone was not born in.
ratification—the action of formally signing a contract or agreement to make it official.
ratify — to approve or endorse.
veto — to refuse approval or passage of a bill that has been approved by a legislative body. The executive branch of government has the power to veto, but that power may be overridden with enough support.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2023 edition of The Legal Eagle.