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High School Suffrage
Give Them The Vote

Smarter voters than geezers

We’ve been backsliding toward universal suffrage for more than 200 years. We’re almost there. But come Nov. 4, more than 8 million Americans who should have the right to vote won’t have that right. I mean Americans 16 and older. Virtually nothing can be said to deny the vote to adolescents that can’t be said about any other age group, especially not the standard (and supremely patronizing) objections. Immature? Lacking judgment? Misinformed? Easily impressionable? The same can be said about the 50-year-old next door. Age is no shield against manipulation, nor is it a mark of intelligence, let alone wisdom. Inflexibility, dogmatism, prejudice—those are characteristics of age, not youth.

To take one example, I would trust the vote of a 16-year-old high-school student in any public school with my eyes closed before trusting the vote of a retiree piddling about between the golf course and cable news in a gated community that prays to its mutual funds five times a day. Those communities are designed to self-segregate by age or tax bracket or, more subtly, by race. That’s not a blueprint for open-mindedness. Public schools are. They are as close to melting pots as we have. Students are daily engaged with cross-sections of the country’s cultures, religions, economic and even political currents. If that sort of atmosphere doesn’t ensure open-mindedness, it at least cultivates it. Suburban sameness or gated communities do the opposite.

 

In other words, high school students are in a better position to cast an open-minded vote, and certainly one less burdened by the prejudices of history and ideology, than their elders.

In that case, why stop at 16 (as in Austria, Brazil and Nicaragua)? Why not 14, 10 or 8? Personally, I have no objection to anyone of high school age automatically having the right to vote, or anyone who files taxes, or anyone younger than 14 who passes an adult citizenship test. But there is a point at which a reasonable defense of the youth vote gives way to unreasonable possibilities. If the line between childhood and adulthood changes from unambiguous to imaginary as children age, a line still has to be drawn somewhere: When may a person drive or join the military? When should the state step in to protect a child’s welfare? When may a parent quit paying child support? The fact that those lines must be drawn doesn’t mean one line should arbitrarily be drawn for all, otherwise 18-year-olds who can be sent to Iraq also should be allowed to drink (in reality, they should) and 16-year-olds who drive should be able to join the Army (they should not). Obviously, even in crucial legal matters, the line between childhood and adulthood is fluid. So why not let the fluidity work in favor of more inclusive voting rights?

Just about any objection to the youth vote one can think of has been leveled at other groups before they were granted the right. A few enlightened states aside (women and blacks could vote in New Jersey beginning in 1776, and all 12 of Wyoming’s women could vote beginning in 1869), there really was no democracy in the United States until the 20 th century. Only a ridiculous minority of property-owning white, properly Christian men could vote in the early days of the republic. Anyone else—Jews, Catholics, the rare Muslim among them—was thought to be beyond trusting with a vote. The 15 th Amendment in 1870 made blacks’ voting rights explicit, but it wasn’t until a century later that most could vote freely. Native Americans? 1924. Women? 1920. Eighteen- to 20-year-olds? 1970.

Just as Mary Wilson Thompson, the expert lobbyist and the Phyllis Schlafly of her day, tried to persuade President Wilson to oppose women’s suffrage by claiming that “the women of this country are not fitted for the vote,” so we’ll hear that “the youth of this country are not fitted for the vote.” Please. Some 74 million eligible Americans didn’t bother to register for the last presidential election, let alone vote (just 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot). That’s the disgrace. That’s who’s not “fitted” for the vote. An adolescent’s vote would by definition be a more responsible and democratic act than that of an adult neglecting to vote at all. Most adolescents would likely not exercise their right if they had it. That’s no argument not to give it to them, otherwise anyone younger than 50 should have his or her voting right withdrawn since the majority of people in those age groups don’t vote.

But it’s also possible that expanding the right to adolescents would instill responsibility at an ideally impressionable age. “Adolescence,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “is the period of generosity, and it should be utilized for the formation of generous habits.” Voting is one of those habits. That generosity’s benefits are universal. Suffrage should be, too.

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