Should 16-Year-Olds Get the Vote?

ballot box

Ballot box
With America in the throes of WWII, FDR ordered that the military draft age be lowered from 21 to 18. Soon thereafter, Senator Jennings Randolph began lobbying for the voting age to be lowered as well. According to History.com, Randolph wrote, “They (young people) possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustice in the world, and are anxious to rectify those ills.”

Randolph’s pleas fell on deaf ears, but in 1954, President Eisenhower rekindled the debate when, during his first State of the Union address, he said, “For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America. They should participate in the political process that produces these fateful summons.” Again though, support for a lower voting age dwindled until over a decade later, when we were embroiled in the Viet Nam War. President Nixon supported a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18, and by summer of 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified. Ironically, the new law unleashed 11 million new young voters onto the political scene just in time to vote for Nixon’s anti-war opponent George McGovern. Nixon was still re-elected, but in 1972, 55% of the newly franchised young voters went to the polls.

Over the years, youth voting has been erratic. For example, according to the US Census, only 36% of eligible young voters turned out for the 1988 election. Four years later that number was 44% thanks in part to an interest in Bill Clinton. That percentage was duplicated in 2008 when young people were energized by Barack Obama, but by 2012, their participation dropped back to 38%. Reportedly, the 2016 election brought out young voters in numbers that nearly equaled those of 1972, although an informal poll, taken during the Portland Oregon protest rally the day after Hillary lost, revealed that nearly 70% of Millennials didn’t bother to go vote the day before.

Today, in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school massacre, young people ages 16 to 18 are more politically active than ever. Their fervor and anti-gun protests are even stirring up debate about lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. Late last month, the Washington, D.C. City Council voted to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, with Councilman Charles Allen saying, “At the age of 16, our society already gives young people greater legal responsibility. They can drive a car. They can work. Some are raising a family or helping their family make ends meet. They pay taxes. And yet, they can’t exercise their voice where it matters most – at the ballot box.”

Mr. Allen’s comments harken back to Jennings Randolph, Ike, and Nixon, all who argued that if a young person can be called into battle, he should be able to vote. The problem is that D.C.’s action does not apply to federal elections. Short of Congress passing new voting rights legislation, a change to the 26th Amendment would have to be ratified in order for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Theoretically there’s enough time to act on either option before the 2020 election, but to do so, members of both parties would have to put politics aside, and agree to let millions of young, angry voters have a say in national politics at a time when high school kids despise and distrust all incumbents.

It is unlikely that Congress will demonstrate the kind of non-partisanship it would take to lower the voting age, but we can only hope. Yes, I realize that some high school students are immature and lack an understanding of how government works, but those same shortcomings also apply to millions of adults whose political parties gave us Trump and Hillary to choose from in the last election. I doubt that 16-year-olds could do any worse than that.

 
 

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