As if America didn’t already have an appalling record on youth rights, the Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy wants to raise the voting age to 25 unless 18 to 24-year-olds serve in the military or pass a civics test. Really, Vivek? When there’s a growing movement to lower the voting age to 16 to give taxpaying teenagers the right to vote, and when multiple countries like Austria and Scotland have done so successfully, you think it’s time to make it harder for youth to vote?
Plain and simple, Ramaswamy’s proposal aims to disenfranchise young voters, just as civics tests have had a long history of being used to disqualify Black voters from participating in elections. There’s longstanding legal precedent, dating back to at least 1949 with the Supreme Court ruling in Davis v. Schnell, that tests are an unconstitutional voting requirement as they violate the 14th Amendment. Just as the white ruling class sought to make it hard for Black people to vote, thereby ignoring their political will, so too Ramaswamy thinks he can ignore the voices of millions of young people.
Why does Ramaswamy want to do this? For one, it’s likely that his proposed civics test would be formulated along ideologically conservative lines, thereby gearing the 18-24 demographic “toward” his Republican party. He has reason to shift this demographic. According to data from the Pew Research Center, in the 2022 election, only 31% of Americans aged 18-29 voted Republican. That is four points lower than the percentage of 18-29-year-olds who voted Republican in the 2020 election. Ramaswamy must sense this impending danger for his party. Rather than connecting with a potential base of young voters who are less accepting of the far-right rhetoric now employed by so many conservatives (certainly including the “pro-life” and “family values” candidate Ramaswamy), his plan seems to be to just make it harder for them to vote. This should come as no surprise. Republicans have been instituting voter ID laws for the past few years under a similar premise that when they make it harder for everyone to vote, fewer marginalized people vote, and so fewer people vote Democratic.
The proposal’s worst aspect is the ageist paternalism on which it’s based. The assumption goes that an 18-year-old who’s passed a civics test or served in the military has the same merit to vote as a 25-year-old who has neither passed a civics test nor served in the military. As much as I am against any tests for voting, from a strictly youth rights perspective, I could perhaps understand a blanket testing requirement for all citizens. However, Ramaswamy’s proposal creates a double standard by which one is left to assume that 18-year-olds are inherently too immature to really be full, voting adults whereas 25-year-olds are.
I’m afraid that this creates a dangerous precedent on which youth rights in other areas could be restricted. For example, the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age by making voting ages above 18 unconstitutional. Before that, the federal voting age was 21. The lower voting age pushed most states to lower their drinking ages from 21 to 18. Policies in one area have consequences on others, and so in the 70s, 18-year-olds could vote and drink. 18 was the new adulthood, after all. However, in 1984, when the federal government set a national minimum drinking age of 21 (essentially undoing the progress that had been made in the 70s), this too had consequences. In 1997, the federal smoking age was established at 18. In 2020, it rose – like drinking – to 21. Most hotels now don’t let adults ages 18, 19, and 20 check in unaccompanied and most states treat young adult drivers under the age of 21 as de-facto children who can’t have any alcohol in their bloodstream, and just like other children, can’t supervise over 16 and 17-year-olds learning how to drive. Let’s face it. 18 might be the legal age of majority in most states, but the actual age of adulthood everywhere in America is 21. An increased minimum drinking age has ended up having consequences far beyond alcohol consumption.
Who knows? If Ramaswamy’s plan materializes, we could be dealing with an even higher age of adulthood for drinking, smoking, voting, etc. at 25. 25 could be come the new 18, the new 21.
To Mr. Ramaswamy: we are one of the most puritanical countries when it comes to respecting youth rights. No country in the developed world has a drinking and smoking age as high as we do. Why must you think that becoming more, not less, puritanical in adopting now the highest voting age in the world is the solution here?
Reading Joan Didion’s South and West today her commentary on the drinking age seems odd: “Before I came south I had not been taken for seventeen in considerable years, but several times in that month I had to prove I was eighteen.” But writing in the 70s, it was clear to Didion that an 18-year-old was an adult, and that as such, an 18-year-old could legally drink and a 17-year-old could not. Today this is not so clear to us. I don’t think Ramaswamy has a chance of becoming the GOP nominee, let alone winning the presidency. But just imagine if he could. Imagine if somehow, our hyper-conservative Supreme Court would deem his executive order on the voting age of 25 constitutional and Congress wouldn’t meaningfully object to it. In 30 years, kids my age would be bewildered by the “outlandish” and “naive” notion of 18-year-olds being able to vote. Pundits and politicians would toe the line of “youth are XYZ,” using harmful stereotypes to justify their ageist rhetoric.
And that’s scary. It cannot happen, whether it’s Ramaswamy or another candidate who ends up materializing it. I reject a voting age of 25 for the same reason I reject a smoking and drinking age of 21 and the current voting age/age to sign legal documents of 18: kids are more responsible than we think and compared to other countries our record on youth rights is downright absurd. We should be fixing that by giving minors and young adults more rights, not continuing down an endless path of youth marginalization.
To the presidential candidate: If you want any chance of winning over younger voters (which your party urgently needs), backtrack this anti-youth proposal of yours. As history has shown us, there’s only so much you can marginalize an oppressed group before your own power is questioned.