Should the voting age be lowered?
October 25, 2016
With an impending election, Umar Hanif and Mallika Luthar weigh the pros and cons of lowering the voting age.
Why the voting age should be lowered
In an editorial cartoon from 1871, a man done up in a top hat and coattails, the personification of the American South, etches a declaration on the side of a house. It reads, “Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites, signed Mr. Solid South.” A black man, presumably unable to vote, looks on in the background, bemused at the misspelling.
Just under a century later, in 1970, the criticism of the cartoonist would be heard as Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to ban literacy tests nationwide, an action that was upheld by the Supreme Court the same year. Literacy tests would join the ranks of gender and land ownership as outdated qualifications for a person’s ability to vote. But one qualification, being the age of 18 or over, persists.
The justifications behind literacy tests, however racist they may have been in practice, seem fairly sound. The idea was that only the well-informed should be able to vote. If people weren’t as knowledgeable to the goings-on of American politics and government, then they wouldn’t be able to make the intelligent and rational decisions that would best serve the nation. For the past two and a half centuries, we have applied this logic to our youth under 18 years of age, with the assumption that children and teenagers surely would not have enough knowledge to make smart decisions.
However, that justification seems to have a particularly large fallacy. Consider the state of knowledge when it comes to the American population in general. In a Pew poll conducted in 2007, 69% of Americans could name the vice president, 66% could name their governor, and only 68% knew about the trade deficit. Besides being a practice that targeted African-Americans, the literacy test left because it didn’t make sense. To determine voting ability based on knowledgeability would be to prevent roughly one-third of the general population from voting. It would be a return to literacy tests.
If we are to consider ourselves a true democracy, a government “of the people” and “by the people”, then we must consider all the people, including those who may be less informed. Which includes individuals under the age of eighteen.
Despite the historical trend of apathy towards the opinions of teenagers, one must consider that the teenage population is, in fact, here. Not only that, but they hold a stake in almost all the major political issues of the day.
Take the most hotly discussed topics of the current election. For the past few months, it’s been difficult to turn on the news or go online without finding any mention of Trump’s infamous wall. It has become one of the centerpieces of the candidate’s platform, increasing border security and cracking down on undocumented immigrants. And in an interview last August, Trump specifically emphasized the deportation of the children of undocumented immigrants. The population of people Trump refers to constitutes 6.9% of the K-12 population. Regardless of your stance on this issue, it is hard to deny the impact it will have on a group of people who remain largely voiceless.
Or consider abortion, a topic that polarizes the country to such extremes that each side considers the other to be freedom takers or baby killers. Trump caused an uproar in March when he suggested punishing women for abortions. Hillary similarly sparked controversy when she chose pro-life Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. But again, those with stakes in the issue are also those without voices. 18% of abortions, with 750,000 a year, occur in teenagers. Pregnancies like these are often accidents and often result in young women not finishing high school. One would assume that they would like a say in what happens, whether that be an abortion or otherwise.
It doesn’t stop there either. As politicians battle over gun control, 1.7 million children live in a house with an unlocked and loaded gun and just over 17,000 are killed by gun violence every year. When Clinton and Trump butt heads over who will do the most for job creation and the economy are discussed, the 4 million teenagers with jobs are rarely mentioned.
This is not even an issue limited to this current election and political season alone either. In 2002, when the Iraq Resolution was voted on, more than 50% of the men and women who would go into battle had no say in the representatives that made the decision. Men and women who would later die for a cause given to them, not chosen.
The list goes on. There are nearly 40,000,000 teenagers in America, each with lives that are shaped daily, whether directly or indirectly, by the decisions of our political representatives. On what basis can America continue to prevent these millions from having a say in who makes their laws?
Imagine a car driving down a road. If the car swerves one way it will fall into a volcano. If it swerves the other it will come upon the valley of Shangri-La. But you are only a passenger in that car with your arms strapped to the seat and your mouth gagged, powerless to choose the direction. This is surely the sentiment of the unheard youth.
Why not to lower
The idea of expanding who can vote has long been disputed. The idea that voting is a basic right, while fundamentally true, has long been a controversial idea. Restricting the vote by race, class, or gender has been established as constitutionally wrong, but restricting votes by age adds a whole new level of complexity to the issue.
There’s a reason the voting age hasn’t been lowered after many years of discussion. In 1971, 18-20 year-olds were given the right to vote, supported by the fact that eighteen year-olds were fighting in Vietnam. During the 1972 election, only 50 percent of the group exercised their right and the rate has since fallen. In the 2014 elections, only 19.9 percent of 18-29 year-olds voted. If such a low percentage of young adults voted, why should even younger individuals be given this right?
There really is no apparent reason why the voting age should be lowered. Unlike in 1971, the government isn’t asking younger citizens to participate in any civic duties. Individuals under the age of eighteen aren’t in the military, they aren’t writing checks to the government to pay taxes; they still live with their parents who do all these things and many policies don’t directly affect minors.
In fact, the age to do many things has been increased, not decreased. Research shows that the brain is still developing until an individual’s mid-twenties. New studies have even found that full reasoning skills and abstract thought develop much later than previously thought. Thus, many legal thresholds are going up. The drinking age has been increased to twenty-one and the age an individual can drive with no restrictions is being increased to seventeen or eighteen in many states. Essentially, more significant responsibilities are only being granted with increased maturity.
Additionally, many minors still don’t fully understand how our government works. Only 24 percent of twelfth graders scored at the “proficient” level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics. If so many teenagers don’t understand how government works, how can you trust them to cast informed votes for the highest government positions?
If a teenager is eager to share their voice, they can attend political rallies, advocate for their beliefs and educate others, so that when they come of voting age, they can make informed choices.