Allegedly, America is a country founded on democracy, but not all Americans are given the ability to participate in the democratic process. For instance, in many states, inmates and ex-felons are barred from the voting booths. Motivated to further the long running trend of the enfranchisement of more and more groups of Americans, many organizations are fighting to change such unjust laws restricting the right to vote.
Almost no one, however, is leading the charge to enfranchise all young people. There are nations where the voting age is as low as 16, but in democracies around the world, granting suffrage to anyone younger than 15 is seen as a joke.
Disenfranchising young people may be the norm, but it is far from ethical. Establishing any sort of age restrictions on voting is unprincipled, repressive and weakens democracy.
Democracy, as it was envisioned by the founding fathers, is the people’s first line of defense against tyranny. Therefore, those who are left out of the political process are left defenseless. This was brutally illustrated during the Vietnam war, a conflict that killed over 58,000 Americans whose average age was 19. At that time, states could set their own voting ages for local, state, and federal elections as long as it was 21 or lower. All but Georgia picked the maximum.
In the sixties during the draft, activists called out the hypocrisy of a government sending people to die for their country while keeping them out of the political process that killed them. The slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” summed up the growing national sentiment.
When congress proposed the 26th amendment in 1971, which lowered the maximum age states could require for voting to 18, it was ratified in four months, faster than any other constitutional amendment ever. It had a strong argument backing it up: If people are under the jurisdiction of a government and expected to follow its laws, they should be able to give direct input.
Today, this argument also applies to young people under 18, who are affected dramatically by government policy every day.
The case for letting people younger than 18 vote not only has legal precedent, it is a logical extension of past policy changes. At the beginning of the country’s history, less than 6% of the population was eligible to vote. You could not vote unless you owned property, were white (in most cases), a man and at least 21 years old. One by one, these restrictions were removed, and each time, our democracy became more just.
Not only were the arguments for each expansion of voting rights very similar, but the criticisms echo strikingly the arguments made today against young people voting. People argued that giving votes to women was essentially giving extra votes to married men, since women would be easily influenced. This argument is, in hindsight, utterly fallacious and inconsistent with the values of American democracy: women are separate people with separate minds and deserve a separate vote.
Young people, despite the concerns of them being manipulated, deserve a separate vote too. They should have the right to assert their own opinions as well as the right to be influenced by other people in their decisions, just like everyone else.
Abolishing the voting age is not only principled but also practical. It could significantly address the civic disengagement and low voter turnout that our country currently struggles with. In the 2014 midterm, turnout (proportional to eligible voters) sank to 36.7%, its lowest level in 72 years. Studies consistently show that the greatest predictor of voter turnout is whether or not someone has voted in the last election. Voting is a habit, and habits are best formed in youth.
Many elementary schools already hold mock elections to impress upon students the importance of political participation. But for young people capable of filling out a ballot (with the same audio ballots offered to adults if they so choose), nothing can replace the dignity and empowerment of real democratic participation.
The global status quo is that young people must wait their turn to directly influence politics until they live to an age where they are believed to be more capable of decision making. However, the ideals of modern democracy hold that the right to vote is an essential part of someone’s human rights, and the arc of history shows that being subject to the laws of one’s own government is the only justification required. Many young people want to help choose elected officials. They possess the ability to judge candidates and validly fill out a ballot. And, if they were allowed to do this, it could usher in a new era of civic engagement.
The strength of democracy is derived from the people in charge of the government being accountable to the people they govern, and keeping the youngest members of society voteless is only making this accountability weaker.