Last Saturday, March 24, 2018, I experienced first hand what I am convinced will be a defining event in United States history: the ‘March for our lives’ rally in Washington DC. As I was standing among the crowd (around 800,000 people, according to the organizers), I could not help but admire the strength, tenacity, and confidence of the people speaking. Some were already 18-years-old, but the majority of them were still minors. The experience of attending this rally, apart from the evident necessity of stricter gun control laws in this country, also got me thinking about these 5 main reasons why the voting age needs to be lowered.
1. People under 18 are equally affected by the laws.
This generation was born right after the 1999 massacre at Columbine high school and have lived their whole lives seen mass shooting after mass shooting, over 200 school shootings in total. Schools, which should be the safest place for children, have become spaces of metal detectors, locker searches, locked doors and active shooter drills. Consequently, this generation’s most basic fear is embedded in the daily (and mandatory) act of attending class. And it is a reasonable fear, since gunshots have become the third leading cause of death for children in the United States. Hence, it is clear that this particular age group would benefit from stricter gun control laws. However, they are not able to express their preferences through voting, the most basic right in a democracy.
2. They are already participating in politics.
The particularity of the ‘March for our Lives’ movement is that it was created, organized, and lead by high-school students, all of them 18-years-old or younger. Although it is not the first, or only one, it has certainly received the most public attention. Nevertheless, despite the vast presence of underage people, the emphasis in the speeches, the chants, even the signs, was placed in the act of voting. Cameron Kasky, a student at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, reminded the current politicians to “…either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware: The voters are coming”. Similarly, the most repeated chant by the crowds was “Vote them out!” and, as the image above shows, many students were holding signs saying “I can’t wait to vote” or “Future Voter”.
3. The arguments against increasing voting rights were already used against other groups’ suffrage.
The majority of the arguments against lowering the voting age imply that people under 18 years old lack knowledge, maturity, or that they can be easily manipulated. The reasoning behind denying such basic right is that minors are still seen as people that need tutelage and cannot make decisions on their own. However, setting the voting age at 18 years old creates a random boundary that does not imply maturity or capability. Moreover, throughout history, the same arguments were used against allowing voting rights to women, servants, or people who did not own any land. At that time, just like children now, women, native Americans, and people of color, were seen as inferior people who needed tutelage. Thus, denying them the most basic political right of participation in civil society.
4. It has been proven that lowering the voting age increases turnout.
In the few occasions that young people have been allowed to vote, participation has increased. For example, when Takoma Park, a city in Maryland, became the first place in the United States that permitted 16- and 17-years old to vote, the turnout rate among them doubled that of the overall population. But not only do teenagers become more politically active, also their parents. Research in Denmark, has shown that “parents with voting-age children at home are around four percent more likely to vote”. Furthermore, although it is very difficult to determine ‘the quality of vote choice’, research has shown that “lowering the voting age does not appear to have a negative impact on input legitimacy and the quality of democratic decisions.”
5. More Importantly: Voting should be a universal right.
In a democracy, voting represents the basic right of all citizens to express their point of view. People under 18 are citizens too, yet their voices are not heard. A universal right cannot be taken away randomly. The burden of proof should not lie with the disenfranchised group, they cannot be expected to prove why they deserve the right. Hence, in order to achieve a genuine democracy, an essential requirement should be to enfranchise all citizens equally (one person – one vote).
After the success of the ‘March for our lives’ movement last Saturday, it is time to start the conversation on why voting should be a truly universal right to all American citizens, regardless of their age. Even though this might nowadays seem as a ludicrous project, in the future, it could become a reality. For example, the most powerful speech in the Washington DC rally was delivered by Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old girl who was completely aware that she still has to wait 7 years to be able to vote. Yet, she was doing politics, she was actively contributing to change in the world. As a Toni Morrison quote she cited: “if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”.
You provide five good reasons to lower the voting age, but you never say what to lower it to. I advocate moving the voting age to 16 nationwide. I think it’s important for young people to get in the habit of being involved in their government. By the age of 16, most states and DC recognize those citizens to be responsible to drive, why not also vote? The 26th amendment was ratified in 1971 in response to the Vietnam war. 18 year old men were drafted into that war but in many states they didn’t even have the right to vote until the age of 21. 26th amendment was very popular and it was ratified in only four months the shortest in the Constitution’s history.
I understand that children are protected by laws and therefore should be entitled to some political representation, I firmly believe that lowering the voting age under 18 would be wildly dangerous to our democracy. First off, minors are categorically not “equally affected by laws” compared to their adult counterparts. Criminal codes differ across age groups, children are basically property of their parents until age 18, and people under a certain age can not run for elected office or become soldiers, police officers, and public servants. There are obvious biological reasons to restrict the franchise from children. Primarily, if voting rights are to be extended to people younger than 18, why not allow even infants, toddlers, and newborns to cast their ballots too? The most important indicator of political preferences is that of your parents; the expansion of the franchise to children would effectively reinforce this phenomenon by allowing hyper-partisan parents to hijack their offspring’s political autonomy and decide their votes for them. Secondly, the expectation that children would use their right to vote responsibly is highly questionable. How can someone that can’t even tie their own shoes hold coherent views on foreign policy, the economy, health care, and a myriad of other complex issues? The current voting age should stay where it is in order to allow children to mature and hopefully gain some level of insight before influencing the outcomes of elections.