The Voting Teen

Why teenagers should be allowed to vote for the good of the country. The Republic is flailing rather wildly as we enter the first quarter of the 21st century and, to the eyes of many, the future is far from secure. It seems clear that we need all hands on deck.

The Voting Teen
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Why teenagers should be allowed to vote for the good of the country.

The Republic is flailing rather wildly as we enter the first quarter of the 21st century and, to the eyes of many, the future is far from secure. Where will the United States be in another twenty years? Will we continue to live in an oligarchy? With technological changes quite beyond any historical precedent occurring, with older generations living longer (and therefore having a political impact for longer), with the increasing interconnectivity of our civilization, and with climate change threatening our entire global ecosystem, it seems clear that we need all hands on deck.

Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds are engaged in the world. We see this every time they stand up before the United Nations, or bring attention to important issues within the social sphere; students from the Parkland shootings last year have become the center of a massive movement for weapon reform in the country. Elsewhere, young people like Malala Yousafzai prove constantly that age is no barrier to affecting powerful and positive change.

When the voting age was lowered in the early 1970s from 21 to 18, it was done so due to a decade-long movement largely prompted by the military draft for the Vietnam War. Signed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Selective Service Act was the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history. In the first world war a draft had been initiated when less than hundred-thousand men volunteered to fight (the government wanted a million), but with the creation of a peacetime draft, the numbers of conscripted soldiers soared. In World War Two the strategy continued, with the Selective Service bringing in record recruitment numbers.

After the war, it was President Harry S. Truman who pushed for a continuation of the mandatory peacetime draft, “asserting that the peacetime army could not attract the numbers that it needed to uphold its global commitments.” (Emphasis, mine). But, a decade later, as the Vietnam War began showing massive casualties for American soldiers, resistance to both it and the draft grew. Part of this resistance took the form of arguing for a lower voting age.

“If you are old enough to be conscripted and sent to kill”, the argument went, “then you should also be old enough to vote to ensure that you have a voice in the election of those people sending you to kill and die”. Eventually, this argument won, despite the cries of many conservative and militaristic dissenters, some of whom considered the argument to be “cliche.” When the initiative to lower the voting age won out, it signaled a massive win for freedom activists in the country and prompted the beginning of a powerful defiance against the military-corporate complex.

One of the modern arguments for lowering the voting age to sixteen is reminiscent of those early arguments against being drafted without voting rights. “Why can we be at risk of being killed in our classrooms by armed shooters,” say teenage supporters of a lower voting age, “and yet not have the right to vote for those people willing to protect us?” The question is powerful, but it only touches upon one important facet of the conversation.

There is an unfortunately prevalent notion in the minds of the older generations which questions the responsibility of teenagers to make rational choices regarding their own life, let alone wider policy. Some dissenters of lowering the voting age bring in an argument regarding protectionism: “we defend under-eighteens with laws protecting them from alcohol, pornography, drugs, and much more,” cite such voices, “doesn’t that clearly show that under-eighteens require a watchful eye due to their natural lack of maturity?”

And yet there have been numerous studies conducted which show little to no difference in the how the brain of a sixteen-year-old operates compared to that of an adult. As Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University wrote in an L.A. Times article in 2014, “Adolescents can gather evidence, consult with others and take time before making a decision. Adolescents may make bad choices, but statistically speaking, they won’t make them any more often than adults.” Therefore what we have in front of us is the potential of increasing the total average voting pool by lowering the age to sixteen: some will vote poorly, or not at all (just as many adults do) but still more are likely to be active and critical members of the voting population.

But what about the criticism that suggests that, because voter turnout among the 18–21 age range is already quite low in many cases, lowering the voting age even farther is pointless? To this, we can apply the recent issue of Scotland’s referendum for Independence where the voting age was set to sixteen and record numbers of young people (80 percent of the total under-eighteen voting population) turned out to vote. Thus the counter-argument is that there may be other mechanisms preventing or dissuading current 18–21s from voting. This could be due to a lack of civic exposure and responsibility at a younger age, for instance; perhaps by being provided with the option to vote — and the trust that comes with that — younger people will feel empowered to continue their active political life into adulthood.

Indeed, it could also be said that if you are old enough to work and pay taxes to your government (we can talk about whether or not taxation is legal and moral later) you should be old enough to have a say in how your taxes are spent. It is possible for sixteen-year-olds to enter the workforce with the same number of working hours as an adult. I do not condone the flagrant commodification of our youth through the capitalist system but, if the system creates the circumstances where people who are sixteen can work full time, it must needs provide them with the ability to take political action at the same time.

But here is another incredibly important point regarding teenage voting: the parents of teenage voters are more likely to vote as well. This study shows a significant statistical increase in the voting activity of parents whose child or children have recently become enfranchised voters. The important point to note here is that the increase is only visible if the teenagers are still living at home — it becomes marginal once they have left home. Clearly, increasing the voting population of teenagers has the potential to increase the number of overall voters as well. This, in an era of historically low voter turnouts, can only be a good thing.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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