It's time to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds

Susan Maas
Susan Maas: In a political system plagued with apathy and alienation, fixating on how to exclude more voters makes zero sense.
Submitted photo

Susan Maas is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.

Though she couldn't effectively articulate why, she's a voter ID amendment supporter. "They" — the apparently unqualified voters she was convinced the amendment would weed out — "haven't been here long enough, don't know enough" to cast an informed vote, the woman explained to me.

I was door-knocking on behalf of my state legislators, and chatting with a voter who lives a few blocks from me in south Minneapolis about the upcoming elections. And yet, just moments before making this pronouncement, she'd said she wasn't sure who her state senator or state representative (the latter of whom has served in the Legislature for 27 years) is.

Actually, she wasn't quite clear on who her congressperson or U.S. senator is, either, she admitted with a chuckle.

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My 13-year-old son, who happened to be out with me that day, is more knowledgeable about the upcoming election than was this particular voter. A voter whose firm conviction was that we must change our state's Constitution (at tremendous expense, she acknowledged) to exclude other voters.

I've always felt strongly that we need to expand political participation, not decrease it. And that conversation got me thinking: While 13 is probably too young to vote, why will my kid — a U.S. history buff whose knowledge and understanding of government matches or exceeds that of many adults — have to wait until he's 18 to have a say in policies affecting him? More to the point, why can't the many bright, engaged, aware 16- and 17-year-olds we know weigh in this November?

At a time when the voter ID amendment poses a direct threat to the right of college students — one of the most mobile (in the case of college freshmen, generally overwhelmed) populations — to vote, I'm wondering why we shouldn't begin instilling the habit of participating in democracy a year or two earlier.

Youth in Lowell, Mass., have mobilized to make that very case. Upset and feeling impotent about budget cuts directly affecting their high school, Lowell teens have helped push a measure to lower the voting age in municipal elections to 17. (And giving the lie to the inevitable contention that moving to extend the youth vote is a liberal conspiracy, the legislative sponsor of that bill is a Republican: a former high school history teacher.)

There's precedent for this trend around the globe. The voting age has been lowered to either 16 or 17 in Austria, Cuba, Brazil, Ecuador, Germany and Nicaragua — and such proposals are under serious discussion in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Wales. And an agreement announced Monday by the U.K. and Scottish governments will give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the upcoming referendum on independence for Scotland. That's as it should be, said Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland.

"The forthcoming referendum will be one of the most important questions ever faced by the people of Scotland, which is why it's crucial that the future of Scotland, its young people, have a say in the outcome," Parker said in a statement. Allowing younger citizens to help decide this historic question should set "the positive precedent to deliver votes at 16 for all elections in Scotland, and across the U.K."

Half of teens work and pay income taxes; the vast majority pay sales taxes. A large and growing number contribute to civic life, as well: 26 percent volunteer nationally, and 40 percent in Minnesota. And teens are disproportionately affected by shortsighted environmental, education and economic policy decisions. Given that they bear more of the consequences for choices made by officeholders at various levels of government, youth ought to have a hand in electing those officeholders.

But 17-year-olds will just vote the way their parents do, some say. In some cases, sure — and to the extent that political leanings reflect shared values, that's not inherently bad. In any event, many of us know folks in their 50s who "just vote the way their parents did," too. (And anyone who thinks that a parent can force his or her teen — in the privacy of the ballot box, no less — to bend to the parent's political will probably hasn't spent much time with teenagers.)

I can hear the argument about maturity: They're just not old enough, not experienced enough, to make responsible decisions at the polling place. In terms of emotional maturity, yes, many teens are far from fully developed. But in terms of intellectual and cognitive maturity — the kind that's called for in the ballot box — most 17-year-olds are ready. Their ability to reason is every bit as advanced as an 18- or 19-year-old's. And from a practical standpoint, they're in a much better position to cast that first vote.

Most 17-year-olds are living at home and more connected to their neighborhoods and communities. They're also in the throes of studying history, government and civics; many of them are as informed as, if not more informed than, the older voters who are shaping their futures. In many ways, high school is — unlike one's first year of college — an ideal time to begin exercising the franchise. It's a more logical time to begin the habit of representative democracy we should all want to encourage.

In a political system plagued with apathy and alienation, fixating on how to exclude more voters makes zero sense. I believe we need to go in the opposite direction. Maybe entrusting more teens, many of whom feel powerless in the face of messes we "grownups" have created, with the fundamental right and responsibility of citizenship is just the ticket.