Old Enough to Drive, Too Young to Vote: Rethinking America’s Voting Age Limits

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Flickr/Liz the Librarian

They all pay sales tax. They have to abide by the same laws as everyone else. And many are old enough to work and get behind the wheel. But for teenagers under 18, the right to vote remains elusive.

And that’s not fair say many student rights groups across the country who for years have pushed to lower America’s voting age to 16. In a nation with notoriously low levels of voter turnout, advocates argue, allowing more young people to vote would boost civic participation and give students a much needed voice.

“Young people participate in this society in many other ways,” Alex Korokney-Palicz, president of the National Youth Rights Association, said during a 2012 interview with Fox News. “They pay taxes, they follow our laws, they can be charged as adults for crimes. They have so much reason to vote, and It’s simply unjust to deny them.”

Being able to vote, he added, could add real meaning and relevance to high school social studies and civics classes, which most students take before they’re 18.

Although the voting age is still 18 in a majority of the world’s democracies (real and imagined), a growing number of nations are considering lowering that bar to 16. And a  handful already have, including Nicaragua (1984), Brazil (1988) Austria (2007) and Argentina (2012).

But, say opponents, too many youth simply lack the necessary level of complexity to make informed decisions in the voting booth.

“I think it’s a dumb idea,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. “The voting age was set at 18 because that’s the age at which people could be drafted and die for their country. [Those under 18] don’t have enough life experience or history and don’t know the issues in enough detail.”

Another concern is that the nation’;s  minimum voting age often sets the ceiling for other age limits. Sexual consent and criminal responsibility age limits, for instance, vary state by state but never exceed 18. (An exception is the minimum drinking age, which was set at 21 through federal legislation). If the voting age were lowered to 16, some fear, states could start treating 16-year-olds as adults in matters of consent and criminal prosecution. .

Universal suffrage has gradually grown more inclusive throughout U.S. history, generally a result of hard-fought political battles waged by disenfranchised populations. When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, voting in most states was reserved for white male property owners, 21 or older. The founding document mentions nothing about who could and couldn’t vote (amendments extending the vote to African-Americans and women came much later). In fact, the Constitution never explicitly guarantees the right to vote at all.

By the mid-Nineteenth Century, most states had dropped property requirements. And with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, voting rights were granted to all male citizens, 21 and older, regardless of color. It took another half-century before the passage of the 19th Amendment, extending the vote to women.

But it wasn’t until 1971 that America lowered its voting age to 18. The 26th Amendment was ratified largely as a result of heated student opposition to the Vietnam War and the contention that if an 18-year-old was old enough to be drafted into the military, he or she should also be considered mature enough to influence political outcomes. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” became the movement’s campaign slogan.

More recently, local legislative efforts to lower the voting age have sparked up in a number of states, including California, Florida and Alaska, but none have thus far been successful. 

But if history is a guide, the possibility could certainly be within reach if enough young people demanded it.

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  • chrisnfolsom

    Are you kidding – republican’s are obstructing all demographics they don’t like – you think they will allow young voters? I am surprised they haven’t tried to raise the voting age to 68 like Fox viewers… ;)

    • donjeremias

      I can’t tell, by your comment, if you are supporting this idea or simply poking at the Republicans. If you think about it, I could argue that “the democrats are more effective at appealing to young people who feel slightly disenfranchised about their future due to the uncertainty of youth, and the desire for “authority” to be effective in creating a path – hence they want a younger voter base to ensure success”. I gave up on both parties; divvying my votes between Green and Libertarians (to ensure complete chaos in my dissent). If an 18 year old cannot enter into a legal contract, then should they vote? At 16 I graduated early, applied for emancipation from my parents (unsuccessfuly), worked a job, and used my experience with “illegals” to get an apartment by breaking the rules. That is not the average demo for high school graduates.