March 29, 2004
In 1971, the United States ratified the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. At the height of the Vietnam War, most Americans realized the sick double standard inherent in sending 18-year-old soldiers to fight and die for their country when they weren't allowed to vote. Double standards didn't go away in 1971. Right now, youth who don't have the right to vote can be criminally charged as adults and even be subject to the death penalty. What kind of twisted message do we send when we tell youth they are judged mature, responsible adults when they commit murder, but silly, brainless kids when they want to vote? Lowering the voting age is the just, fair way to set things straight.
2. Youth pay taxes and live under our laws.
Just like all other Americans, young Americans pay taxes. In fact, they pay a lot of taxes. Teens pay an estimated $9.7 billion in sales tax alone, not to mention many millions of taxes on income. Youth pay billions in state, local, and federal taxes, yet they have absolutely no say over how much is taken. This is what the American Revolution was fought over: taxation without representation. Young people are also affected by every law that Americans live under, yet they have no say in the matter. In her 1991 testimony before a Minnesota House subcommittee, 14-year-old Rebecca Tilsen had this to say: "If 16-year-olds are old enough to drink the water polluted by the industries that you regulate, if 16-year-olds are old enough to breathe the air ruined by garbage burners that government built, if 16-year-olds are old enough to walk on the streets made unsafe by terrible drugs and crime policies, if 16-year-olds are old enough to live in poverty in the richest country in the world, if 16-year-olds are old enough to get sick in a country with the worst public health-care programs in the world, and if 16-year-olds are old enough to attend school districts that you underfund, then 16-year-olds are old enough to play a part in making them better."
3. If youth vote, politicians will represent their interests.
Young people are no one's constituency. Why should politicians care about the needs and wishes of youth when youth have no ability to vote for or against them? Lowering the voting age will give politicians a real reason to respect the desires of young people.
4. Youth bring a unique perspective to politics.
A common argument is that denying youth the right to vote isn't the same kind of burden as denying women or racial minorities, since in a few years, young people will be old enough to vote. Would we limit the right to vote to those with a certain income, reasoning that those with less income can simply work harder to earn enough money to vote? Voters vote based on their individual circumstances. The concerns of a 16-year-old are different than those of a 24-year-old, just as the concerns of a poor man differ from those of a rich man.
5. Sixteen is a better age to begin voting than 18.
At 18, many youth leave their home and community to attend college or search for work. At the very moment they are supposed to vote, they either live in a new community that they are unfamiliar with or must attempt to vote back home by absentee ballot, a process that turns off many new voters. Youth have comfortable surroundings, school, parents and friends. Lowering the voting age will give the vote to people who have roots in their community and an appreciation for local issues.
6. Lowering the voting age will increase voter turnout.
Studies show that if citizens begin voting earlier, and get into the habit of doing so earlier, they are more likely to stick with it throughout life. Parent voter turnout will also increase. Kids Voting, a program in which children participate in a mock vote and accompany their parents to the polls on Election Day, has shown that even this modest gesture increases the whole family's interest in voting. Parents are more likely to discuss politics with their kids, and an estimated 600,000 adult voters are more likely to vote.
7. We let stupid adults vote. Why not smart youth?
Many argue that youth should not vote because they can't make informed and intelligent decisions. Yet this standard is applied only to young people. Senility, alcoholism or mental illness do not disqualify adult voters. Plenty of "normal" adults can't tell you who the vice president is. It's illegal to subject voters to literacy or competence tests. Youth shouldn't be held to a stricter standard than adults.
8. Youth will vote well.
It is silly to worry that huge masses of youth will rush to the voting booth and unwittingly vote for Mickey Mouse and Britney Spears. Individuals with no interest in politics stay home from the polls. Young voters are likely to vote in much the same way as their parents, not because they are coerced to do so but because of shared values. Young voters also have a unique opportunity to come to the polls with a solid understanding of what they're voting on. If the voting age is lowered, schools will most likely design civics classes to educate and prepare new voters.
9. There are no wrong votes.
Will youth vote "wrongly"? Well, did voters choose poorly when they elected Clinton in 1992? Republicans would say so. Did voters choose poorly when they elected Arnold Schwarzenegger? Democrats would say so. All voters have their own reasons for voting. We may disagree with their reasons, but we must respect their right to make a decision.
10. Lowering the voting age will provide an intrinsic benefit to the lives of young people.
Teenagers have amazingly high levels of volunteerism and community service, yet many feel turned off by politics. Including youth in a real, substantive way in politics will lead them to take their public-spirited nature into the political realm. Our country was founded on the principle that responsibility comes with rights, not the other way around. Lowering the voting age may not be the magic bullet to improve the lives of youth, but by giving youth a real stake in their futures, it will push them to become involved, active citizens of this great nation.