Too Scared to Let ‘Em Vote

youth vote
Illustration by Sara Varon

The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18-years-old during the Vietnam War. The argument then was that if young people are being drafted to die for their country, they should have a voice in how it's run.

That same reasoning applies today. While the young Americans fighting in wars overseas are not younger than 18, the battles raging in the streets and in schools here affect folks much younger than those of "voting age."

Take what happened in West Contra Costa County, California as a recent example. To make up for a $22 million budget shortfall, the school district voted to eliminate high school sports and music programs, close all its libraries and lay off 10 percent of its employees. That direct attack on education -- decided by a vote -- adds up to $16.5 million in budget cuts.

The final vote by the school board was 5-1. Five adults made a decision that affects thousands of kids. The one person who voted against this was 17-year-old Pinole Valley senior Peter Chau -- the only student on the school board.

Judging by how furious students are, it's obvious the cuts wouldn't have been approved if they had more representatives on the board. Thousands of kids at De Anza, El Cerrito, Hercules, Pinole Valley and Richmond High School are protesting. All they can do now is react -- they've got only one representative, and no voice at the polls.

Truth is, the county wouldn't be in this huge a mess if young folks could vote. Except for school employees and parents, people 18 and older weren't trippin' on passing a failed parcel tax on the March ballot that could've helped close the district budget gap. But students would've passed it.

Politicians who need the youth vote recognize their power. Several Democrats recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would give half a vote to 16 and 17-year-olds and a quarter-vote to 14 and 15-year-olds in state elections, starting in 2006.

It's an insult to consider a youth less than a full person -- like when blacks were considered three-fifths a human. And the idea that the partial vote would be "training wheels" for kids is degrading. But, letting them vote is a proposal long overdue.

The reason many people in my age group, 18 to 24, have stopped voting is that we've lost hope. But the young folks I work with -- who range in age from 11 to 18 -- are not only more informed than I was at their age, they're more engaged. They've experienced more in their short lifetimes than many adults I know. They've got the time to research issues and they discuss politics daily at school.

And most aren't completely disillusioned, yet. Would Prop. 21 have passed if young Californians had the right to vote? Hell no. People with political power know this, and that's why they're scared to let 'em vote. They know the multi-media efficient, multi-colored young folks today know what's up. They know kids don't believe the hype.

And they know most kids believe they can make change. That's why I think the proposal to let 14 to 17-year-olds the right to vote will never get the two-thirds approval it needs to be put on the November ballot. It's not that young folks are "not mature enough," or "lack life experience" like some old farts have argued.

It's that if given the chance, they'd be too damn powerful.

Shadi Rahimi, 22 is a contributing editor of Youth Outlook and the publisher of Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG) Magazine.

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