One of the chief theoretical advantages of a democracy is the idea of “one person one vote”, a characteristic that limits the total power that can be accrued by a select oligarchy. However, there is always the lingering question of what parameters should be applied when creating requirement criteria for voting. Throughout U.S. history these parameters have become less and less restrictive including age. Based on the important issues in present society the question of whether or not the voting age should be adjusted again becomes even more prevalent. Note that when the term “voting age” is used it references the minimum age that a state and the federal government cannot deny an individual the ability to vote.
The most common argument for lowering the voting age harkens back to a perceived central theme of the Revolutionary War, “no taxation without representation.” A number of 15-17 year olds have jobs that require them to pay income taxes as well as other smaller taxes like payroll taxes, yet do not provide them with an ability to participate directly in the political process. Therefore, some argue that it is historically prudent that these individuals are given the capacity to vote. Unfortunately this mindset is not as clear-cut as its proponents would like to believe.
First, with the current state of modern technology individuals as young as ten can create marketable content on the Internet or fashion and/or custom jewelry pieces. So under the above premise should such ten year olds be given the right to vote as well? Second, the idea of “no taxation without representation” is not as noble as one might think. The idea was largely peddled as a “call to arms” so that the colonial public would accept the Revolutionary War, which on its face provided much more benefit to the merchant and upper class sectors of the colonies versus simple common land owners, especially since most of the dying would be done by the colonial public. Third, the idea of “no taxation without representation” is used literally by proponents, thus the literal application would imply that only individuals with jobs that pay a large enough wage should be allowed to vote, this is certainly not in the spirit of democracy. Fourth, the idea of representation itself is flawed because without a reasonable probability to produce an informed mindset, that representation produces a detriment to society.
An example of this important fourth reason is as followed: suppose Apartment Complex A is having a vote among its 50 residents on whether or not to establish a new more restrictive noise ordinance. 10 residents are opposed to this new ordinance because they commonly have parties that involve loud music and do not want these “rituals” interrupted. 20 residents are in favor of this new ordinance because they are frequently bothered by the noise that emanates from these parties. The final 20 residents have no strong opinions on this vote and are not aware of the grievances of 20 pro ordinance residents because they are far enough away from the 10 con ordinance residents that they do not experience the loud music. Under these conditions these final 20 residents should not vote because of their lack of interest and information; however, more than likely if they vote they will vote against the ordinance due to reasons of either simplicity or avoiding future restrictions on themselves. Therefore, these 20 “neutral and uninformed” voters will ineffectively swing the results of the vote because they do not understand how the outcome of the vote affects all residents in Apartment Complex A.
Some proponents of youth suffrage would argue that age does not define maturity and/or information acquisition, which is true. However, age does create greater chances for opportunity and experiences that can increase the probability of intelligence and maturity. Probability is what matters in the case of the blind voter. Clearly not all adults are sufficiently informed of the depth of their votes, but there is a higher expected probability that these individuals have the ability to inform themselves. For example based solely on life experience an 18-year old individual has a higher probability of having the tools to understand the significance of his/her vote over a 16-year old individual.
Proponents typically put forth various other less meaningful rationalities like 16-year olds can drive, drop out of high school, be charged as an adult in certain crimes, encourage greater interest in politics, etc., but none of these reasons have sufficient ability to challenge the uninformed voter argument. So does that mean that the idea of youth suffrage is logically dead? Not really for proponents have missed the very idea behind the initial age change in suffrage (age 21 to age 18), a reasoning that now applies now to even younger individuals.
Sadly in modern society very few individuals focus on the welfare of the future when crafting public policy and legislation, choosing instead to focus on the present. Unfortunately this focus results in the application of numerous strategies that damage the future in order to provide greater benefit for the present. These policies that damage the future inherently damage the future health (at all levels) of the nation’s youth. However, youth are not given the appropriate mechanisms to defend themselves against this threat because they cannot participate in the political process. The idea that a significant portion of voting influence occurs through the intent of parents to protect and grow the future for their children, i.e. make a better life, does not appear to be valid due to the lack of policy addressing income inequality and global warming, the two most important issues for the future; neither of these issues have been tackled with the necessary urgency that their solutions require.
This betrayal of the future can be demonstrated through the following example. Suppose Person A is given the opportunity to select one of two options:
Option 1 – Receive 5 dollars now and receive another 5 dollars 2 years from now;
Option 2 – Receive 15 dollars now and lose 5 dollars 2 years from now;
While the net outcome for both choices is +10 dollars, the future is supported by only one of those choices. Some would argue that due to economy of scale the second option is actually better for the future because the present has more ability to solve existing problems with 15 dollars than 5 dollars. This statement is true, but only in theory. Unfortunately the present is not using the sacrifices they are demanding of the future to create a better future.
For example the prospect of global warming has been a serious problem for over two decades, yet industrial society, outside of a global recession, has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere over those two decades by a significant amount and the money made from that pollution is not being redirected into a new energy infrastructure and other strategies for the reduce global warming damage for the future.
Overall this lack of power is the real reason to ask whether or not the age of suffrage should be extended to individuals younger than the age of 18. Originally the age of 21 was decided as the voting age by the Founding Fathers because of the importance of the age in English culture at the time (21 was the age of legal drinking, voting and knighthood). This limit was significantly challenged by the logic associated with the Vietnam War where individuals between the age of 18-20 could be drafted, sent to war and die without the ability to influence the political process (lack of power). To rectify this hypocrisy the voting age was lowered to 18.
However, while the lack of power issue is a more viable rationality for youth suffrage over more inaccurate and simplistic arguments like “no taxation without representation”, the problem of the uninformed voter still looms. This concern can be addressed by tying a simple test to voting registration for 14 to 17 year olds. The test would focus on simple and basic, yet important concepts to demonstrate that these individuals are capable of effectively participating in the democratic process. A vast majority of 18 year olds have taken some form of civics and/or government class as a requirement to graduate high school, thus this test would be designed to encapsulate the basics of the knowledge acquired from that study.
For example this type of voting test could be conducted at a federal or state government building. The test would be comprised of three sections: 1) identify the three branches of the federal government and briefly describe their roles in government; 2) identify the holders of the major positions of governmental power in the applicant’s state (i.e. governor, two federal senators, which political party controls the legislature, mayor of the city of residence, etc.); 3) identify how one would acquire information about a particular political topic to improve his/her understanding of the issue;
Section 1 is required to ensure that the applicant understands the basic structure and function of government otherwise the importance of voting is lost. Section 2 is required to ensure that the applicant has a basic understanding of the political environment of his/her own state and understands the hierarchical structure of local and state government. Section 3 is required to ensure that these younger individuals have the ability to rid themselves of ignorance in order to limit the probability that they are simply voting as extensions of their parents or friends. Basically this test should ensure that applicants have an understanding of process, an awareness of reality, and an ability to acquire relevant information for the future.
While the problem of rationality has been solved above, a secondary problem of application still exists. This problem can be seen by reviewing the history behind the 26th Amendment. On June 22, 1970 an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed that required changing the legal voting age from 21 to 18 in all federal, state and local elections. Soon after both Oregon and Texas challenged the change to this age change leading to the case Oregon v. Mitchell (1970). The Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to force states to register 18-year olds for state and local elections, while retaining the federal election age limit change. Without state involvement it was deemed too expensive to create and maintain separate voter rolls (one federal and one state), thus the 26th Amendment was crafted to eliminate this problem associated with the previous legislative action.
Overall it is unclear whether or not the same constitutional problem may exist for extending youth suffrage, but it stands to reason that it does. Also while the 26th Amendment was passed very quickly it is reasonable to assume that certain states will not be as forthcoming with an amendment that lowers the minimum voting age to 14 or even 16. The reasoning behind opposition to youth suffrage may not be valid due to the securities provided by the required voting examination to substitute for the experience of age, but that does not eliminate the possibility that states will still oppose such a change. Therefore, the reasoning for lowing the voting age may be sufficient (allow teenagers to protect their future because enough adults certainly are not taking the proper steps to do so), the drive by states to allow such a change may not be sufficient. Unfortunately as it currently stands the application of youth suffrage may simply suffer from a lack of motivational drive for its establishment versus a lack of logic.