A bill that would lower Maine’s legal voting age to 16 faces an uphill struggle in the Maine Legislature, but youthful advocates like Cole Cochrane say it’s a debate worth having.

“I want to make sure there’s a conversation around lowering the voting age, even if it doesn’t pass,” said Cochrane, a 16-year-old sophomore at Thornton Academy. He is a driving force behind the bill and served as campaign manager last year for its sponsor, Democratic Rep. Margaret O’Neil of Saco.

Active in politics since seventh grade, Cochrane said there are a lot of good reasons to let 16-year-olds vote. Among them are increased voter participation and establishing voting habits that will last a lifetime.

But others disagree, and in written testimony to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, critics said 16 is just too young to be voting.

“Responsible citizens use their life’s experiences and knowledge to make an informed decision on how they use that power and cast their vote,” wrote Pete Harring of Washington. “Sixteen-year-olds can not legally purchase tobacco, alcohol, sign a legal contract etc. When I was 16, I certainly was not responsible enough to make a reasonable informed choice on how to cast my vote.”

The committee will hold a public hearing at 9 a.m. Friday, when advocates and opponents can make their case on O’Neil’s bill, which has several Democratic co-sponsors from southern Maine.

“Legislatures make decisions that affect young people every day,” O’Neil said. She pointed to policy decisions on education, climate change and labor laws that can deeply affect the lives of young Mainers.

Her bill would change the voting age in the Maine Constitution, requiring two-thirds support in the full Legislature, as well as approval by a majority of voters in a statewide referendum.

“It’s a steep hill,” Cochrane said. “But it also brings the prospect of passage and the prospect of conversation. I think it’s time to renew the arguments around why lowering the voting age may be a good thing and that’s something worth having at the state level.”

Other pending legislation would lower the voting age for municipal elections to 16.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allow youths to register or preregister to vote at age 16, but none allows anyone under 18 to cast a ballot in a general election. A handful of states, including Maine, allow 17-year-olds to participate in primary elections, provided they will be 18 by Election Day, and another 26 allow voters to register early provided they will be 18 by the next Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several cities around the country also have lowered the voting age for school committee elections.

Supporters of lowering the voting age say it will increases voter participation, civic engagement and make students more interested in learning about government and democracy.

Advocates like 14-year-old Audrey Hufnagel of Damariscotta say government affects their lives and they deserve a say in the democratic process.

“Every child and teenager in our country is affected by the decisions that our leaders make, but 16- and 17-year-olds are affected even more,” Hufnagel wrote in a letter to the committee on March 11. ” Many people that age work, pay taxes on their income and drive. If our society trusts 16-year-olds to make good decisions in jobs, managing money and behind the wheel, then they should trust them to make good decisions voting as well.”

Opponents, however, point to other aged-based restrictions that apply to youth, including those against buying alcohol or signing legal agreements.

Heather Miller of Dexter called the proposal “absurd” and “an embarrassment for Maine” in her written testimony.

A national effort to lower the voting age in all 50 states has been underway since at least 2015. That effort is being run by Vote16USA, a project of Generation Citizen, a New York City-based nonprofit that educates youth and teens on democracy, according its website. The organization is largely funded by large charitable trusts and foundations.

A 2020 white paper by Vote16USA lays out the case for lowering the voting age, pointing to dozens of studies indicating that establishing an early voting habit will lead to lifelong voting, and that civics education is more effective when students can apply what they’ve learned in class by exercising the right to vote.

“Allowing young people to vote while they are learning about government, and their role as citizens, in high school civics courses captures the full potential of civics education,” the 40-page paper states.

The paper also looks to dismiss what it calls “myths” about the movement to lower the voting age, including the perception that lowering the voting age is a partisan power grab by left-leaning progressives, or that young people will simply mirror the votes of their parents.

Pointing to a Scottish study in 2014 on a referendum there for independence, the paper noted that 40 percent of young voters expressed an intention to vote differently than their parents, who also were interviewed in the survey.

While no state has adopted a 16-year-old voting age, four cities in Maryland have done so, according to the white paper, and voter participation among 16- and 17-year-olds in those cities was four times that of adult voters.

Several Republican lawmakers on the committee did not respond to messages seeking comment on the bill Wednesday or said they wanted to hear all the testimony on the proposal before taking a position.


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