The case for lowering the voting age is probably better than you think

What you’re getting into: about 2700 words, a 9-14 minute read and some mild cursing.

Arguments about whether or not minors should vote have always struck a nerve with me. It’s probably because I’m a civics nerd at heart: In high school, I convinced a bunch of my friends to sign up for an American government elective that hadn’t run in years, I was class president, I dropped off voter registration forms with my fellow students when they turned 18, and I even amended the student government constitution to make that registration project an official part of the job for students who came after me.

So, yeah, I think voting is important. And I find all of the arguments against extending the vote to teenagers essentially without merit. Under examination, such arguments seem to be based on a selective interpretation of what it means to be a voter and uncharitable assumptions about teenagers’ ability to participate in civic life.

These aren’t theoretical discussions, either. Takoma Park, MD already lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16. And Washington, DC’s city council is considering a bill that would lower the voting age to 16, too.

Matt Yglesias at Vox wrote about this yesterday, arguing that there are already many ways people under 18 participate in politics, from knocking on doors to making financial contributions to candidates. He also argues, persuasively, that the right to vote, unlike the right to drive, is not based on competence.

But naturally, the idea of lowering the voting age seems odd at first. As adults, we like to see ourselves as very separate from the world of teenagers. And we like to think that we’ve grown a lot since our teen years, including, perhaps, politically.

But I don’t think those feelings really matter when it comes to whether or not it would make sense to lower the voting age. It’s the right thing to do, the arguments against it are hard to defend under scrutiny, and it would actually make our democracy stronger.

Voting should come with other rights and responsibilities

Voting is often considered a minimum right in a democracy. If someone can exercise other rights, it follows, they should also be able to exercise the right to vote.

Indeed, the 26th amendment was largely the product of the Vietnam War. If 18-year-olds could be drafted and die for their country, they should damn well be able to vote, the argument went.

student_march_full

Of course, 17-year-olds can enlist in the Armed Forces, though to be fair, it requires parental consent. Not that that matters much; if your kid is a few months away from making the decision without you at 18, will you really say no? And if your kid is the type to enlist, how likely is it that you’re the type of parent who will object?

Driving license systems, meanwhile, vary by state and the youngest drivers can be found in South Dakota, where people aged 14 years and three months who prove they have the ability to safely operate a multi-thousand-pound vehicle at high speeds can do so. They just can’t drive to the polling station and vote. They have to wait three years and nine months for that.

Three months before they get their license, however, they, along with any American, can enjoy the right to trade their time for money, something the rest of us call “work.” The Fair Labor Standards Act generally sets the minimum age for employment at 14 and some states are fine with 12-year-olds working in agriculture outside school hours. Teenagers’ income, of course, is subject to taxation. And yes, minors who work get most of that taxed money back, but the government holds onto it till they file, just like adult money. 

So, would you tell a 17 year old getting ready to go to basic training that he can’t vote for the president who will decide if and where he will serve his country?

Would you tell a 14.25 year old in South Dakota that she can drive her car to school and work every day, but she can’t vote on whether or not her town should bond money to repave the roads she drives?

And would you tell a 14-year-old who just got her first paycheck that she shouldn’t be able to vote for or against the people in Congress who set income taxes?

Personally, I find that last point the most compelling. If you can be taxed, you should be able to vote, plain and simple. In the United States, that would make something like the age of 14 the lower threshold for voting. Additionally, since we only elect presidents every four years, extending voting rights to 14-year-olds would also ensure that anyone who serves in the military at 18 has had an opportunity to vote for their Commander in Chief.

What about all those counter-arguments, though? I don’t think they’re worth a damn because the same exact arguments could be used to prevent adults from voting.

The overwhelming majority of teenage voters would be “better” than the “worst” adult voter

A lot of people imagine teenagers would make uninformed voting choices. You know, like adults do. To be blunt, teenagers should enjoy the same right to make uninformed voting choices and political judgments the rest of us enjoy. 

Seriously, picture the worst voter:

Moranapple

Maybe it’s your absolute political opposite. Maybe it’s somebody who blindly votes the party line like clockwork. Maybe it’s somebody who votes for president then mashes the buttons for their rest of their ballot.

Really, picture that worst voter.

Then tell me every teenager in America would be a worse voter then them.

They wouldn’t. Neither would the majority of teenagers. Neither would even a significant minority of teenagers.

Teenagers are people. So are Millennials. So are octogenarians. So are Boomers or members of the Silent Generation. The idea that we can make sweeping, definitive, universal judgments about how people in an age-based demographic would approach voting is just stereotyping. Yeah, there are tendencies, which I’ll get to later, but there are no universals and there are no special thresholds of “maturity” or “objectivity” that people magically pass when they turn 18 that turn them into “good” voters.

If teenagers aren’t “mature” enough, categorically, to vote, then surely there are older voters whose lack of maturity should disqualify them from voting, too.

Of course, no one would argue for that because there’s no such thing as a “maturity” requirement for voting. Nor are voters required to be intelligent, virtuous, or even nice people.

Whatever it is you might think teenagers lack that should disqualify them from voting, I can find a large group of adults of varying political loyalties who share those same characteristics. No one is suggesting those adults should be blocked from voting because that would be wrong. I’d argue that blocking teenagers from voting based on such weak justifications is wrong for the same reasons. The only fair, logically consistent conclusion, in my mind, is to extend the right to vote to teenagers.

Every parent already influences how their children vote

Another thread of argumentation against extending voting rights to teenagers assumes that parents will force their children to vote a certain way.

First, let’s be clear: asshole parents will attempt to force their children to vote a certain way. Most parents won’t care because they have better things to do like put food on the table. Or they’ll treat it like any other relative voting and assume it’s something they can influence, but that is ultimately not their damn business.

mom voting
Damn it, Mom…no peeking at my ballot!

Second, we are all already influenced by our parents when we vote. Maybe you vote the same way your parents do. Maybe you take after one parent, but not the other. Maybe you rebelled and stuck with it. Maybe your family’s political disagreements shape your own views.

To that end, here’s a counterfactual to consider: imagine a very old voter who goes straight party line just like their father did. Forget about which party it might be. This person is a “yellow dog” Democrat or Republican. They are voting exactly the same way their parents did because that’s what their parents told them to do. And they may be in their 60s or 70s. And they may have never sat down and challenged their own political beliefs. I don’t think they should be disqualified from voting because they’re still doing what their parents told them to do, so I don’t think teenagers should be either based on the false assumption that some parents will try to force them to vote a specific way.

Finally, as a practical matter, voting booths are still private spaces. We have all bullshitted our parents about who we’re hanging out with or what we’re doing. Asserting some private, individual space is a natural part of growing up. All of that day-to-day child / parent negotiating is far more difficult than simply telling mom or dad you voted based on your values or that it’s simply none of their business.

Voting is about who counts in society, not just our individual judgments

The great value of voting for society is that it requires the political system to be responsive to people who show up to the polls. We all don’t have to serve in office, or work for the government or lobby or give money to candidates, but if we vote, we keep the political system’s excesses in check and we reward leaders who have our collective best interests at heart. Not every time, but over time.

Allowing teenagers to vote wouldn’t dramatically alter our political landscape overnight. What it would do is introduce a new constituency to the political calculus leaders perform every day as they cast votes, make demands and strike compromises.

To cite a specific example: Social Security won’t be there for me or people younger than me when we turn 70, at least not in the same way it’ll be there for my mother and father. (You’re welcome, Boomers!) But that doesn’t mean teenagers will go to voting booths armed with retirement calculators, rationally voting in their self-interest. And it doesn’t mean politicians will make empty promises to teenagers about Social Security any more or less than they make empty promises to Boomers. But I do think the political system as a whole would be more responsive to such longer-term concerns if teenagers could also vote.

Dismissing teenagers’ worth as voters is condescending (at best)

Yet another thread would argue that allowing younger people to vote would dumb down our political discourse. To which I would retort, you really think it can get worseSeriously, go Google “weirdest political ads.

A good test for anti-suffrage arguments...has someone maybe been down this road before?
An anti-suffrage cartoon. If you’re making an argument like this about anyone, including teenagers, you’re probably being uncharitable, at best.

There’s an idea that people who are different from us, especially younger people, are somehow more impressionable than we are. And sure, maybe teenagers are, a little bit. But is the average teenager more impressionable than the most impressionable adult? No way. And does that really matter to such a degree that teenagers should be denied the right to vote? And if so, is there another group of people who are equally so impressionable that we must shield them from voting? And before you say that’s a ridiculous question, keep in mind that most of us have shaken hands with women who couldn’t vote when they turned 18.

Indeed, there’s a whole body of literature about the so-called “third person effect.” We tend to think that everyone else is more impressionable to the mass media — and to political media — than we are. It turns out, we’re all pretty impressionable. But in our own heads, we feel like we’re being very rational. Regardless, it’s wrong to say that any group of people should be categorically denied a right because they aren’t “good enough” to exercise it.

Teenagers deserve to be just as gloriously confused as the rest of us when they go to the voting booth.

Political algebra is lame, democracy is vibrant and awesome

Younger voters tend to lean Democratic, so, the assumption goes, teenagers would also lean Democratic. But there’s nothing intrinsic about youth that makes someone lean Democratic or Republican.

Indeed, there a few generational tides when it comes to how people vote.

Generations1

And not to cherry-pick, but in 1984, all those “youths” somehow put aside their mindless Democratic leanings and overwhelmingly voted for Ronald Reagan.

And what about younger people in Utah, Oklahoma and other generally conservative areas of the country? Shall we bar them from voting because they might be outnumbered by their generally more liberal brethren in California and New York?

The most important thing here, of course, is not political party calculus. It’s introducing another constituency to the electorate. It would be up to each party — and candidate — to figure out how that should shape their agenda, their campaigns and how they govern.

Finally, take the flip side of this argument: if older people tend to lean toward Republicans, would you think it was wrong to help them vote in greater numbers? If so, would you object to offering them free publicly subsidized transportation to the polls? I’d hope not. They’re citizens, too, just like those car-driving, tax-paying teenagers.

Let my people vote!

I was an argumentative teenager (shocker) and occasionally the adults in my life would resort to the worst argument: you’ll understand when you’re older. It’s a great way to punt the conversation a couple years if a teenager just made a good point you don’t want to deal with, but there’s some truth there, too.

Age and experience do make us wiser. Ideally, we become more empathetic people, better workers, better partners, better friends. But I don’t think growing older makes us better voters. And that’s okay.

Voting is about welcoming people into society and acknowledging that their voices count. If you can serve, if you can drive, if you can work and pay taxes, your voice should count. And not in the “speak up and be heard” kind of way, but in the way the rest of us enjoy: when politicians are thinking about the tough decisions they have to make, they need to consider and even worry about what we will think when the next election day rolls around.

Even if you don’t exercise your rights, you are counted

I distinctly remember one of the teachers in my high school chasing after a kid urging him to sign up to vote. I never had her as a teacher or interacted with her much, but I guess we were part of the unofficial “we give a shit about politics” club in Lacey Township, New Jersey. I just caught the tail-end of the conversation as they walked by my classroom. It wasn’t going well. She earnestly told him that signing up to vote was the best way to ensure that his ideas and needs were counted by society. He told her, in so many words, that it didn’t matter.

Thinking back, the student she was talking to was probably already lost to politics. His life was rougher than most of ours and, if I had to guess, he probably had already heard a lot of broken promises from authority figures. Why would he want to bother with a whole other set of broken promises from politicians?

Maybe if he was 14 instead of 18, their conversation would have been different. But even it wasn’t, it would still matter if other teenagers like him could vote. People his age would be counted when it was time to make public policy and that is the ultimate value of extending the right to vote to more people.

It’s odd to say this, but age is a largely unquestioned barrier to full democratic participation in American politics. And the arguments people use against teenagers voting are the same lame, intellectually empty arguments people have used for generations to block others from enjoying the same rights they have.

It’s bullshit.

This is a democracy. More voters are a good thing.

Even if their taste in music sucks.