The arc of history in the United States has been one which has continually expanded voting rights. Starting with a nation which mostly only allowed white, male landowners into the ballot booth, these rights were expanded across racial and gender lines to include almost everyone. But there have been periodic efforts to expand that tent even further, and we see this topic raised yet again in the Washington Post Opinions section this week by Maya Gonzales Fitzpatrick. (Emphasis added)
We’re young. We’re smart. We want to vote.
It’s time to lower the voting age to 16 for D.C. elections.
We don’t have to go very far to see how this can work. Our neighbors in Takoma Park and Hyattsville became the first and second cities, respectively, in the United States to lower the voting age for local elections, and it’s paying off. In Takoma Park’s first election in which 16- and 17-year-olds could vote, newly enfranchised voters voted at twice the rate of other age groups. Other countries, including Austria and Brazil, have lowered the voting age for their national elections, with positive results.
Research also shows lowering the voting age to be a common-sense way to increase voter turnout in the short term and long term. Many 16- and 17-year-olds have lived in their community for years and are learning about civics and voting in their high schools. It makes sense to participate in the democratic process for the first time while learning about it in school. That is why 16-year-old voters tend to vote at a higher rate the first time they have an opportunity to cast a vote. Studies also show that voting is habit-forming. By allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, we can encourage a lifelong habit.
I’ll just start by saying to Ms. Fitzpatrick that this is a very well written, persuasively argued essay which tackles an important topic. There’s much here to agree with too. Getting young people engaged in the political process and excited about becoming well educated participants in our democracy as early as possible is an unassailable position. Current turnout rates among younger voters are abysmal and some new ideas are needed to improve those numbers. Young people should tend to be more enthusiastic and likely to participate than some of their elders who have become a bit more jaded by life. And I agree that establishing good habits early can be an important factor in determining lifetime patterns.
And with all of that said… this is still probably not a good idea. I understand that we’re only talking about the District of Columbia here and they, along with all the states and municipalities will have to make up their own minds. But all big ideas that begin locally have at least a chance of going to the federal level so this is worth a sober, realistic look.
This all comes down to the subject of how we establish a generally accepted definition of the age of majority and what rights and responsibilities should be reserved until that milestone is reached. Just by coincidence, earlier today I noted that while we could begin changing the minimum age for smoking until it reached the century mark, we probably shouldn’t. It’s a tricky subject which we wrestle with in a variety of circumstances and have for a very long time.
So should there be a minimum age at all for voting? I’m guessing that pretty much anyone capable of reading this would agree that there should be. After all, if you allow a six month old into a voting booth and they manage to make a legible mark on a ballot or push the correct sequence of buttons, it’s going to essentially be a random vote. (Of course, looking at some of the results we get these days, you might have a valid argument in saying we get plenty of those already.) So six months is not old enough, but currently eighteen years is. Why not shift it a bit?
I don’t have a definitive answer for that one. Over the history of mankind we’ve had children transitioning to adult roles at all sorts of ages. In earlier eras, the age of majority arrived pretty much when puberty did. There was a good reason for that in a time when you needed to get on with the business of procreating quickly because you’d be fortunate to make it to the age of 25 or 30 before being eaten by something or dying from what are now considered perfectly treatable diseases or fixable accidents. We have holdouts of those traditions in some major religions and even in a few states in the USA where you can marry as young as 14.
But the world has changed and our life expectancy has gone up considerably. We have more time to let the young mature and prepare them for the adult world. Still, we allow quite young people to take on a lot of responsibility. Honestly, I think 18 is already pushing the envelope for when you can enter military service. (And I say this as somebody who turned 18 in boot camp thanks to the military’s Delayed Entry Program and a note from my dad.)
But at the age of 16 or 17 are we really ready to participate responsibly in the world in that fashion? Are we ready to make the decision of who is going to represent us in our government? I think most of us still feel that’s awfully young to get pregnant or to impregnate someone else. Working a full time job at 16 is also frowned upon. But few of us think so at that age when we’re itching to spread our wings and fly. That takes me back to the title of Ms. Fitzpatrick’s essay.
We’re young. We’re smart. We want to vote.
It’s been more than four decades since I was that age, but I still remember. Boy, do I ever. I remember how smart I was and how dumb my parents seemed and the fire in my belly to get out there and grab onto… something. To take the bull by the horns and show the world what was what. But as I’ve mentioned more times than I can remember, I also know that the older I got, the smarter my parents looked. And the things I knew so clearly at 16 weren’t quite so obvious a decade later and even less so as my hair began to seriously turn gray.
I know that’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re 16 years old and ready to take on the world. All I can do is ask you to consider what you hear repeatedly from your parents and the rest of your elders. You’re not quite as ready as you think you are, and someday you’ll be making this exact same speech to your own kids. I know it doesn’t seem possible, but you’re taking part in a play which has been repeating for a very, very long time. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.