OPINION: Democracy demands lowering the voting age

A+voter+at+the+poll+during+the+early+voting+period+in+SKyPAC.

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A voter at the poll during the early voting period in SKyPAC.

Zachary Clifton, Commentary writer

Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was originally published in The Courier-Journal on Oct. 11, 2022.

In America, there is no age restriction for being the victim of a school shooting, for having one’s rights stolen away, or for having to disproportionately deal with the effects of climate change. With so many issues presenting unique challenges to the youngest generations, additional representation is a necessity. In order to achieve true equity in America, the voting age should be lowered to 16.

At 16-years-old, the Federal Government has deemed young people fit for work — subsequently, this is the age at which many young people pay taxes. Though, the same government deems this age unfit for democratic participation.

Currently, as students, we face the impending threat of the actions of rogue legislators and bear the brunt of an increasingly inflated economy. As young people, we make up the majority of the workforce earning minimum wage — making us the most vulnerable to increased prices.

2022 has presented unique challenges to our nation — almost all of which have disproportionately impacted young people. This past Supreme Court term has been detrimental to the rights and freedoms of students — ranging from government support for private religious schools to the preferential treatment of religious language at school-sponsored events.

On May 24, 2022, 19 school children were killed in a violent massacre at Uvalde, Texas. Recently, it was revealed that 400 officers failed to act on stopping the gunman — all 0f whom are employed by a government in which those of us under the age of 18 have no say.

The most profound issues of our time are the ones that impact young people – the only group with no representation in our government.

While some argue that young people who are under the age of 18 lack the responsibility or maturity to cast a ballot, the current electorate encompasses some irresponsible factions – including the one that stormed the capitol in a violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

Young people have become increasingly present in decision making bodies – especially when it comes to education and student voice. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, there are at least 33 student representatives on state educational boards all across the country – Mississippi, Kentucky, Delaware, Virginia, Idaho, California, Arizona, and Michigan.

If students possess the competency to make decisions about education, don’t they also possess the competency to make decisions about our democracy?

The data is overwhelming. In addition to educational board membership, young people all across the country are taking agency and getting engaged in democratic processes – including voting.

Tufts’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) recently cited data that concludes that states with facilitative election laws clearly have higher youth voter participation rates – in other words, our laws are clearly a factor in young people’s civic engagement.

The notion that this move is unnecessary because of low voter participation rates amongst young people is unfair. In fact, this idea provides an even greater reason for lowering the minimum voting age. 

Not only will our nation’s citizens have their voices heard, it will almost certainly increase voter participation in the 18–24 demographic as well. While our nation’s youngest citizens have already made progress in increasing turnout, this move would only stand to catalyze this progress further. 

One may think that mandated civic education classes or expanded voter registration could help with voter turnout amongst young people – researchers at Stanford disagree. In fact, in a 2018 study, they found that lowering the voting age was the only remedy to low voter turnout amongst young people.

They found that lowering the voting age would mean that young people could “vote in an election prior to leaving their communities.” And that they could develop “the voting habit at a time when they can more easily overcome the barriers to voting. This makes them more likely to continue voting in the future.”

Recent assaults on our democracy have ensured that my generation will have fewer rights than our predecessors. If our government seeks to build meaningful equity in our young population they will give the right to vote to a younger population — just as they did nearly a half-century ago.

The most dire scenes that our country witnesses are all being shouldered by our nation’s youngest population. It’s time to do better for them. Refusing to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote is stripping them of the voice they have earned. 

When younger generations of America become present in deciding its future, our country will realize the more equitable democracy we all deserve. After all, young people are not just the future.

Commentary writer Zachary Clifton can be reached at [email protected]