In a nation founded upon sweeping democratic values, it is imperative that all eligible citizens, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and age are guaranteed the right to vote.
With the presidential primaries beginning Feb. 1, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts are moving into high gear. Students who turn 18 by Nov. 8, 2016, will get to vote for the first time in a presidential election.
“Our nation was founded on the principles of democracy, the right of the people to govern themselves, and voting, including by young Americans, is the main way we get to exercise this right,” said Catlin Gabel student Sydney Palmer ’17. “To relinquish this power is to surrender your say in self-government.”
A recent debate in the British Parliament concerning the right of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote has raised questions as to whether the voting age in the United States should also be lowered.
The discussion in Britain centered on whether the younger age groups should be among those deciding whether the country should remain in the European Union (EU) in a referendum that will take place in late 2017. Some of the most heated debates took place in the House of Lords, featuring startling comments supporting and opposing the youth right to vote.
Britain’s Telegraph newspaper recorded the comical exchange in The House of Lords. Britain’s Minister of State Justice, Lord Faulks, argued vigorously against extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds saying it would place “too great a responsibility on them” given that “it is not until the age of 25 that the adult brain reaches its ultimate state of maturity.”
“The last time I heard arguments about brains and capacity was in Jackson, Mississippi, with the Ku Klux Klan showing me charts of the average Negro brain compared with a white brain,”
responded Lord Lester, another representative.
“We are in difficult times, and one can see the rise of unscrupulous politicians who can reach toward young people – one thinks of . . . the Hitler Youth. . . ” cautioned the The Earl of Listowel, stating that given Britain’s struggling economy, young people might be prone to supporting extremist politicians,
“I, for one, would not want to argue to 16 and 17-year-olds that they should not participate in that [the EU referendum] election.” stated Britain’s former Health Secretary, Lord Lansley, taking a more tempered approach, expressing sympathy for lowering the voting age.
Despite the harsh criticism, the House of Lords passed a proposal that would allow 16 and 17-year-olds to take part in the referendum, the main argument in support being that because the decision of the referendum will undeniably shape their future and the country they grow up in, teens should have the chance to participate. The proposal was rejected by the House of Commons in late December. If the bill had been put into law, the proposal would have added over 1.5 million teen voters to Britain’s voter rolls.
“It is a shame the Govt was so determined to deny 16 and 17 year olds a vote in the EU referendum,” said Nigel Farage, a leader of the U.K. Independence Party of the decision. “It’s their country and their future too.” Outcome aside, the fact that the question was considered by the British parliament sparked national debate, bringing to important issue of youth voting to the forefront.
Looking at the teen voting issue from the U.S. perspective, there seems to be little momentum for a similar change. It wasn’t all that long ago that you had to be 21 to vote. The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, went into effect in 1972 at the height of the Vietnam War, when tens of thousands of 18 to 21-year-olds (61% of all casualties were service members under 20-years-old) were losing their lives in combat and it was clear they deserved the right to have a say in their fate. Today, less than half of 18 to 29-year-olds vote in presidential elections.
Opponents to lowering the voting age cite scientific, sociological, and demographic evidence that indicates young people are, in essence, too immature and too detached from functioning society to be entrusted with the vote.
“Young people are disengaged from politics for many reasons, few of which will be resolved simply by allowing them to tick a box at the polling booth,” writes Andrew Mycock, a professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom and a columnist for the Guardian. According to Mycock, young people in the 1970s demanded to be stakeholders in the political process and were models of civic engagement.
“Younger kids tend to believe everything they see or hear is real, even if it is just a commercial on television. Teens tend to believe what their role models believe because of the influence they had on their lives. This influence could dramatically influence voting patterns, ” says Crystal Lombardo, a writer for the advocacy and social entrepreneurship group “VisionLaunch.”
“I think that there are pros and cons to lowering the voting age,” says Catlin student, Grace Wong ‘17, “While I think that 16 and 17-year-olds are nearly adults and can make rational decisions, sometimes choices can be made based on trendiness or big issues aren’t completely understood. Still, I think it could be a really unique and compelling opportunity.”
Politicians, non-profits, writers, and bloggers advocating for a lower voting age offer a variety of counter-arguments. First, they assert that there is no simple answer to the question of when an adolescent brain becomes an adult brain. It is a proven fact that the brain is still developing well into adulthood, and this information has been used to oppose lowering the minimum voting age. However, this reasoning is flawed given that different parts of the brain develop at different rates. Basic cognitive processes reach adult levels of maturity by mid-adolescence, whereas those that are active in self-regulation do not fully mature until late adolescence or even early adulthood. Adolescents mature intellectually before they mature socially or emotionally.
Having a standard that requires someone to be capable of making informed and intelligent voting decisions would be valid if it applied to all citizens, but as writer Richard Farson of the National Youth Rights Association observed, “We do not deprive a senile person of this right, nor do we deprive any of the millions of alcoholics, neurotics, psychotics and assorted fanatics who live outside hospitals of it.” Teen brain structures may not be as mature as those of adults, but the teen brain is not in anyway defective, and teens are more than able to pay attention to the news and make informed decisions about voting.
Advocates also argue that teens deserve to have elected representatives who can understand and lobby for their point-of-view. The 50 or 60-year-old’s perspective on life is undeniably different than that of a 16-year-old. They have different interests, outlooks, and objectives. The average age of members of the U.S. House of Representatives is 57. The average age of U.S. Senators is 63. America’s governing legislatures are dominated by older white men who haven’t demonstrated the ability to understand, represent, and promote the values and issues relevant to a representative sample of teens. Allowing teens to vote would not only afford them more influence over the politicians elected and the issues on which government focuses (possibly helping to elect some fresher faces), but also bolster youth civic engagement as a whole, encouraging more young people to seek and be elected to political office.
“I think the voting age should be lowered to at least 17,” says Palmer ’17. “At that point I feel like most people are beginning to understand the complexities of a functioning government and are ready to make an informed decision regarding our political leaders.”
Giving teens the right to vote would allow them to have a say in electing leaders who understand and advocate for their perspectives.
Finally, proponents say giving younger teens the right to vote would give them a greater stake in their future and would bolster overall youth civic engagement. With a purpose and stake, youth are more likely to stay tuned in and take action when needed. As President Richard Nixon stated to a group of young people at the 1971 ceremony marking the certification of the 26th Amendment, “. . . your generation . . . will infuse into this country some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose that this Nation always needs . . .”
As with the debate over reducing the voting age from 21 to 18, advocates often pose the simple question – given that 16-year-olds can work, pay taxes, drive, and be charged as adults for crimes, shouldn’t they be able to exercise the most basic American liberty? In addition, as writer Jean Parvin Bordewich asserts, “With voter turnout continuing to decline, finding a way to turn the next generation into informed, engaged, regular voters should be a high priority for our country, schools, and parents.”
“A 16 or 17-year-old is impacted just as heavily by election decisions as 18-year-olds are since they are legal adults for the majority of that president’s term,” said Hannah Spitzer ’16, a student at Sunset High School. “Schools across the country should invest more time into educating students about elections in order to create a more engaged young population and to create people who truly care about the future.”
As Isabella Ponader, a junior at University High School in Indianapolis, puts it, “It is crucial that every citizen, especially individuals eligible to vote for the first time, cast a ballot in the upcoming election. Votes DO matter.” Ponader continues, “As new generations move forward, their opinions and views are of equal, if not greater, importance than those of past generations. In order to maintain a successful democracy, the opinions of each individual generation must be represented.”
For America’s 16 and 17-year-olds, members of a “Gen Z” cohort who have been deemed by many including The New York Times and The BBC as “unoriginal” and “disengaged,” being granted the right to vote would help them demonstrate their ability to participate intelligently in civic and political matters.
“Voting is the foundation of democracy,” saysWong ’17. “It’s a testament to our society and a real opportunity for citizens to be civically engaged.”
This in mind, while the topic of lowering the voting age is sure to emerge from time-to-time in the U.S., in today’s sharply partisan political climate such a proposal isn’t likely to go very far. It will be interesting to see whether the active consideration of this topic in Great Britain will prompt the U.S. to follow the lead of the British on this topic and take action. “The British are on to something,” says Palmer ’17.