My son follows the news closely; he watches John Oliver every week. He’s angry that his parents’ and grandparents’ generations have left him with a rapidly warming and unlivable world. He’s joined in demonstrations against gun violence. At his school he was involved in student-led efforts to change the name of Columbus Day and to promote trans rights. He thinks President Donald Trump is, as he puts it, “a racist, sexist homophobe.”
For all those reasons, he would like to vote in the 2020 elections. But he can’t. He’ll be 16 next November. In the US, 16-year-olds can get a license to pilot dangerous, giant hunks of metal at high speeds. But they can’t vote.
Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley is trying to change that. Last week she introduced an amendment to a voting rights bill to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. “From gun violence to climate change, our young people are organizing, mobilizing and calling us to action,” she argued. “They are at the forefront of social and legislative movements and have earned inclusion in our democracy.”
Democrats narrowly supported the measure, but Republicans voted against it en masse, and it was defeated. That was a mistake. Young people need and deserve the right to vote – and the country would be stronger if they had it.
The argument for allowing young people to vote is the same as the argument for allowing anyone to vote. The United States was founded on the central insight that if you have no voice in your government, you will be mistreated. Disenfranchisement is the first step towards injustice. The vote is essential for liberty and equality in a democracy. That’s why the colonists rebelled against Britain. It’s why women, black people, and other marginalized groups have fought to be included in the franchise since America was founded.
Young people are affected by government policy decisions on gun control, on schooling, on climate change. As Pressley says, they often organize and advocate around these issues. Last month, for example, a number of school kids confronted California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her to back the Green New Deal.
Feinstein’s response was telling. She boasted that she was “elected with a million vote plurality,” and dismissed a 16-year-old who argued with her by declaring, “well you didn’t vote for me.”
Politicians are responsible to voters. Young people can’t vote, so it’s not surprising that a politician like Feinstein wouldn’t feel responsible to them. Yet, as the kids say, they are going to be the ones who primarily have to live with climate change. Their futures will be warmer and bleaker because they are excluded from the polity. That’s unjust.
There are also practical reasons to lower the voting age. Many people bemoan low voting rates in the US. One of the best ways to encourage voting is to get people in the habit of voting; once you start to go to the polls, you’re likely to continue.
In the US, though, people start voting at 18. That’s the year that they often move off to college. They either have to cast ballots in a community with which they’re unfamiliar, or pay attention to elections in a place where they no longer reside. That’s a recipe for indifference. It would be much easier to encourage people to vote for the first time, and to establish voting patterns for a lifetime, when they’re 16 and in high school.
Though there’s broad support for the idea that young people should learn about civic involvement, there’s a lot of skepticism about adolescent voting. One objection is that young people will just vote like their parents. But researchers have found that people are always influenced by those close to them. People of all ages vote like their parents, or like their spouses, or like their neighbors. Why is the fact that my son would vote like me disqualifying, but it’s fine that I vote Democratic like my parents and like my wife? Even if my son didn’t vote like me, I’d still think he and others his age should have the right to cast a ballot.
Another objection is that young people are not yet mentally competent. Massachusetts GOP chairman Jim Lyons summed up the viewpoint succinctly when he said in response to Pressley’s measure that 16-year olds “simply haven’t matured to the level that they can make these decisions.” Implicit in this argument is the assumption that young people, because they are immature, are too uninformed to vote.
But most voters are very uninformed, and some of them are quite foolish. Half of Americans don’t talk about politics even once a week, according to a Pew poll in 2018. The same poll found that a quarter of the public can’t name the majority party in the House or Senate. My son is more informed about politics than at least 25% of the voting public.
Of course, many high school students are less engaged than my son. But so what? We don’t give people tests before we allow them to vote. We don’t take voting rights away from elderly people, even though there’s extensive evidence that older people experience cognitive decline. That’s in part because intelligence and competence tests for voting have an ugly racist history. But it’s also because all people, whatever their level of knowledge or engagement, are subject to government authority, and should therefore have a voice in government policy.
Bad arguments against young people voting parallel bad arguments against anyone voting. Critics of democracy always claim that the public is too uninformed, or too weak-willed, to make important governing decisions.
This idea that voting is a privilege, rather than a right, has grown increasingly popular on the right. Republicans nationwide have worked to pass voting ID laws and to restrict the franchise and keep black people and poor people from accessing the ballot. One Republican House member admitted that he didn’t want 16-year-olds to vote because he feared they’d vote for Democrats. “I believe [Pressley’s amendment] will institutionalize a Democrat majority here in this House of Representatives.”
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Some 16-year-olds would vote for Democrats. Some would vote for Republicans. But the fact that politicians are nervous about what they’d do is exactly why young people need the vote. Politicians are supposed to be a little intimidated by their constituents. They’re supposed to worry that they’ll lose their job if they don’t do what their constituents want. Politicians should be trying to reassure teens that they’re going to work to give them a future worth living in. They shouldn’t be able to dismiss their concerns about climate change, or about anything, simply because they can’t vote.
If the government is to work for the interests of all the people, it needs to be accountable to all the people, including 16-year-olds. Let them vote.