Voting has always felt like a part of my life, even though I cannot yet vote. For as long as I can remember, I have accompanied my parents to polling places each November and marveled at the array of people gathered there. It was a tangible reminder of the importance of active citizenship.
As a young adult, I have campaigned for congressional candidates and attended town halls. It is frustrating, however, to constantly participate in politics at arm’s length, to work to persuade people who can vote, because I can’t. Lowering the voting age would amplify the political voice of young people like me who are as well informed as their elders – if not better.
Offering suffrage to citizens currently deemed legal minors has a key precedent in the 1971 decision to lower the U.S. voting age to 18 via the 26th amendment. Before the amendment’s ratification, 18-year-olds were subject to the draft but barred from voting for the leaders with the power to draft them. Recognizing the injustice of the disparity between an 18-year-old’s responsibilities and his or her political rights, citizens took to the streets to protest the voting age. While our situation today does not concern military responsibility, adolescents have other legal burdens that suggest their opinions ought to be taken into account during elections.
Youths’ fundamental rights to political representation are being violated by the current voting age. Sixteen-year-olds may legally drive and marry, and in some places they stand trial as adults and may be detained for up to two years in custody. These citizens pay more than $730 million in income tax. Because adolescent citizens are contributing to the country’s economic and political landscape just as adults do, and because 16- and 17-year-olds assume risks and punishments on an equal footing with adults, I believe it is a violation of young people’s liberties to deprive them of the right to vote. We as a culture must be consistent about what we do and do not expect of 16- and 17-year-olds, rather than keeping them in limbo.
The strikingly low voter turnout in the U.S. bespeaks a political apathy that we must attack at a young age. One effect of lowering the voting age to 16 would be to build the habit of political participation earlier, improving voter turnout and boosting political engagement in general. Indeed, California Assemblyman Evan Low presented a bill, ACA 10, that would lower the voting age to 17 for precisely this reason.
“Allowing citizens to vote while they’re still in high school will help to establish their voting habits early, before their transition to college or work,” Low said in an interview with the Mercury News.
Some might argue that youths are impulsive and cannot be trusted to make sound political decisions. However, Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist who studies adolescence, found that 16-year-olds are just as capable of critical thinking as 18-year-olds.
What this issue comes down to is whether we want young people to engage in politics. The U.S. should protect its citizens’ basic political right to representation and reinforce their commitment to their civic duties. After all, the hallmark of our democracy is the people’s participation in politics, and that participation is directly tied to those citizens’ contribution, monetary and otherwise, to their government. Lowering the minimum voting age to 16 is a feasible way to make progress toward these two goals. The United States is a great democracy, but we should not stop striving for the democratic ideal.
Sho Sho Leigh Ho is a former Town Crier intern and Los Altos Hills resident who attends Castilleja School.