Should the Voting Age Be Lowered?

Today, as voters flocked to the polls, one group was staging demonstrations around the country to protest its exclusion from the electoral process. That group was children. You probably think Chatterbox is kidding. He isn’t. “Lower the Vote” protests were planned for Election Day in 14 states, including California, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts. (Click here for the full rundown.) According to its Web page, Lower the Vote

is a partnership of various youth rights organizations and independent organizers all committed to lowering the voting age in the United States of America. We believe that the current voting age denies millions of deserving U.S. citizens the fundemental [sic] right to vote and should be lowered.Young people are tired of being treated like second-class citizens in America. They are tired of facing oppression at the hand [of] adult American society. They are tired of unconstitutional age restrictions. They are tired of being stereotyped by the media as violent, lazy, stupid and apathetic. Above all else, young people want to be a partner in the political process. They want the right to vote, to have a voice in the American Democratic Process.

Obviously, the first question you want answered is, “How far do they want to lower it?” Apparently there isn’t much unanimity about this within the youth rights movement (whose constituent groups include the National Youth Rights Association; the Youth Rights Action League; Americans for a Society Free From Age Restrictions, or ASFAR; the Association for Children’s Suffrage; and YouthSpeak). John Anderson, the 1980 independent presidential candidate, who is currently teaching constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been pushing to lower the voting age for several years. Reached today by phone, he told Chatterbox:

Given the abilities of young people I think to get a drivers’ license and to operate motor vehicles and otherwise begin to assume some of the responsibilities that you normally put in the category of being adults, I think that it’s not unreasonable to contemplate that we would lower it to 16.

The Cambridge, Mass., City Council plans to hold a hearing on Nov. 16 in which it will consider lowering the voting age to 16 for City Council and school committee races; if the measure clears the City Council, it will be forwarded to the Statehouse as a home-rule petition. But others in the movement consider enfranchisement at 16 to be too restrictive. Vita Wallace, then aged 16, advocated eliminating the age limit entirely in a 1991 article for The Nation:

What I suggest is that children be allowed to grow into their own right to vote at whatever rate suits them individually. … As for the ability to read and write, that should never be used as a criterion for eligibility, since we have already learned from painful past experience that literacy tests can be manipulated to insure discrimination. In any case, very few illiterates vote, and probably very few children would want to vote as long as they couldn’t read or write. … I think I would not have voted until I was 8 or 9, but perhaps if I had known I could vote I would have taken an interest sooner.

This sentiment was echoed in a 1997 Brown Daily Herald interview with Anthony Fotenos, founder of the Association for Children’s Suffrage. Fotenos said that although the ideal constituency would be 10 to 18, toddlers should be eligible, too.

Among the many reasons Chatterbox can think of against lowering the voting age even to 16 is that voters at the low end of the youth spectrum rarely exercise their rights now. In 1971, out of deference to the powerful argument that 18-year-olds were old enough to die in Vietnam, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21. (Ironically, the author of that amendment, Sen. Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, lived to the ripe old age of 96.) What did America’s youth do with this newfound right? As little as possible! The failure of young folks to vote has spawned a small nonprofit industry aimed at getting them interested (click here to read some depressing findings from the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy), and the embarrassing quadrennial ritual of having presidential candidates answer inappropriate or irrelevant “youth-oriented” questions on MTV. At the risk of sounding peevish, Chatterbox thinks that if young people want more of the vote, they will first have to finish what’s on their plate.

Alex Koroknay-Palicz, president of the National Youth Rights Association, disagrees. Chatterbox caught up with Koroknay-Palicz, a fuzzy-bearded 19-year-old who attends American University, early this evening in D.C.’s Franklin Park. He and five other protesters were standing at the foot of a statue of Cmdr. John Barry, father of the American Navy, and waving magic-markered posterboard signs that said things like “Lower the Voting Age” and “Democracy = Voting.” Korknay-Palicz argued to Chatterbox that lowering the voting age would stimulate greater participation among those over 18. “The fact that people have been denied the right to vote for the first 18 years of their lives has given them a sense of powerlessness when it comes to voting and civic participation,” he said. If the voting age were lowered, it would help them establish “good voting habits for the rest of their lives.”

But the makeup of Korknay-Palicz’s ragtag group of protesters called into serious question whether the under-18 set even wanted the vote. There were only six of them. (They said there had been about a dozen before I got there. According to Korknay-Palicz, the National Youth Rights Association has about 400 members nationwide.) Of the six, five were already 18, hence able to vote now. (All five did so today.) The sixth was a stocky and somewhat charismatic fellow in a black T-shirt named Jason Gerber. “I operate a small business. Why am I not allowed to vote?” he bellowed into a megaphone as rush-hour commuters sped by. But even Jason (who attends Montgomery College and, had he been enfranchised today, would have voted for Libertarian candidate Harry Browne) really doesn’t have much to complain about. He’s 17. He’ll be able to vote within a year!

Anyway, to establish the sort of lifelong habit that Korknay-Palicz is talking about, you’d have to start voting a lot earlier than 16. In order to assess the fitness of the under-16 crowd to make decisions that would affect the broad polity, Chatterbox posed a few questions to his 7-year-old son, Willie:

Do you think you should be able to vote?


Do you think you should be able to go to bed whenever you want?


If you could choose dinner every night, what would it be?


Do you think you should be able to drive a car?


What can Chatterbox say? He’s a very levelheaded child. But he still shouldn’t be allowed to vote.