In 1971, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution and lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Young men, who had been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, made a powerful case for the change. They claimed that if they were "old enough to fight, they were old enough to vote.”

Today, there is a new movement afoot to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds at the local and state level. Organizations working to make this change point out that if young people can drive and must pay taxes, they should also be able to vote.

I spoke to Samantha Gladu, executive director at Next Up, to learn more about the organization’s efforts to remove voting barriers and how Next Up is “amplifying the voice and leadership of diverse young people to achieve a more just and equitable Oregon.”

Tell us about Next Up.

Next Up was started eighteen years ago by a group of young people who were worried about the trajectory of politics in our state. They bought a bus and filled it up with volunteers and went around the state helping to get out the vote and to get young people more civically engaged. The original name of the organization was The Bus Project.

Oregon was founded as an exclusionary place. We banned Black people from migrating to the state. We’re advocating for policy solutions to make our elections more inclusive. Since our founding, we’ve helped redesign our state’s election system. We are working hard to get a ballot in the hand of every eligible voter.

Oregon is considered a model state for voting and civic engagement. Can you tell us more about that?

In 2010, Oregon enacted online voter registration. Today, 40 states enable citizens to register to vote online. In 2015, we passed the first automatic voter registration law in the nation. After benchmarking other countries, we determined that we didn’t need to spend time and resources to do in-person voter registration. We could get everyone in the state registered using existing systems. Now, we are working to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds and create an onramp for them to vote. Since 2007, nearly 200,000 16- and 17 year-old Oregonians have pre-registered to vote!

Last year, we secured paid postage for ballots. This had been on our radar for years. Even though Oregon is one of the five states that vote by mail [before the pandemic struck], we still required folks to pay for stamps. Now, our ballots have paid postage.

Can you share more about how Next Up engages youth?

In 2018, I was door-knocking with a 17-year-old volunteer to educate voters about two ballot measures. A man answered the door, and she began sharing information. Then, she said, “I’m too young to vote. I’m asking you to do it.” In response, he went and got his ballot and filled it out on the spot. This is just one example of how our 16- and 17-year-old volunteers work their tails off to shape our future. Yet, they are not able to vote. We decided to link up with Vote16USA to create a bill to amend our state constitution to lower the voting age.

We’ve made a lot of progress. This election year, we’re choosing a new secretary of state and every single debate in this cycle has included questions about lowering the voting age.

What’s the biggest barrier to lowering the voting age?

We need a culture shift in how we think about young people. We still don’t view young people as credible actors with agency over their own lives. To address this barrier, we’re advocating to improve civics education in our 197 school districts. We’re also partnering with the 23 other states that allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections. Voting in a primary can be more exciting and impactful than voting in the general election because you get to decide who will be on the ballot.

Why should 16- and 17-year-olds be able to vote?

There is research to show that lowering the voting age increases voter turnout and helps create lifelong voters. Also, voting teenagers can actually increase the turn out rates of their parents. If 16-year-olds are mature enough to drive and pay taxes and engage with our judicial system, they should be able to vote.

Is there anything else you want to share?

Oregon is a laboratory for the innovation of our democracy. When donors support us, they are also helping to advance policies and practices that can be models for other states. In 2020, 90.2% of eligible Oregonians were automatically registered to vote. We’re still hoping to get to 100%.

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