LINCOLN — Nebraska already allows 16-year-olds the freedom of the open road.

Now, a Lincoln state senator wants to give them the chance to choose state and local leaders and decide ballot issues.

State Sen. Anna Wishart created a buzz Wednesday when she announced that she plans to offer a constitutional amendment next year that would lower the state’s voting age to 16.

She presented the idea at a Lincoln Chamber of Commerce legislative forum, during which several speakers talked about the need to attract young people to the state and keep them here.

“This could be one of the most important things Nebraska does to attract and keep young people,” Wishart said. “If we pass this, think about how many young people will look at our state and think, oh my gosh, this state really cares about what I think.”

Wishart said she got the idea after meeting a young German woman this summer who was surprisingly knowledgeable about politics in her municipality.

The woman told her she had gotten interested in politics because she was able to vote at age 16, while also learning about civics in school.

Wishart, who is one of the younger state senators at age 33, said she realized that young Nebraskans also could benefit from putting their classroom civics lessons to work in the wider world.

“Voting is a habit,” she said. “I think we do ourselves a disservice by not starting that habit at 16.”

Wishart acknowledged that it may take some time for people to get used to the idea of 16-year-olds voting. She wasn’t convinced initially, either, she said.

But she got more comfortable after talking with neuroscientists. They told her that the science of brain development supports the idea that 16-year-olds can make informed decisions at the ballot box, even if they are not mature enough to be held to the same level of responsibility for crimes.

Studies of adolescents show that their basic cognitive abilities — the parts of the brain responsible for rational decision-making — mature around age 16. That means they can think through policy issues as well as adults.

But irrational risk-taking and impulsive behavior also peak in the mid-teens, leading otherwise smart young people to make poor decisions, especially in emotional or high-pressure situations. The parts of the brain responsible for controlling emotions and impulses don’t mature until early adulthood.

Wishart’s proposal would add Nebraska to a growing list of states and localities in the United States that have considered lowering the voting age to 16.

So far, only handful of towns in the United States allow 16-year-olds to vote, along with more than a dozen countries around the world. The idea is being pushed nationally by advocates including the National Youth Rights Association and Vote16USA, a project of Generation Citizen.

Nebraska already allows 17-year-olds to vote in elections held the same year they turn 18, as long as their birthday comes before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Nationally, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971, with the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The change succeeded in the midst of the Vietnam War, when the argument was made that if young men were old enough to die for the country, they were old enough to vote.

If passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, Wishart said the measure would apply only to state and local elections.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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