Voting age in the digital age: 16 ... your time has come

Posted on 08-30-2016 by
Tags: Voting , LIT , Election

Birthers ... you’ve heard of them.

Voting agers .... probably not.

Voting agers (my own term) believe the voting age should be lowered to 16. They’re not as noisy or influential as other political agitators, but they’re very much real and very much determined.

One of them's FairVote, which advocates lowering the voting age in order to:

To truly recognize voting as a fundamental right and address the low voter turnout that currently plagues young voters ....

Another one: the National Youth Rights Association. Their voting argument in a nutshell:

Youth suffer under a double standard of having adult responsibilities but not rights.

And then there’s Vote16USA. It has only one mission – to lower the voting age to 16. Here’s their elevator pitch:

Lowering the voting age is a bold idea to strengthen our democracy. Research from this country and others suggests that lowering the voting age can improve voter turnout, spur civic engagement, and encourage effective civic education.

So Why NOT 16?

Sixteen isn’t so sweet for voting; that’s what some people think.  

The late voting expert Curtis Gans stated his opposition bluntly:

I think it’s a dumb idea. The voting age was set at 18 because that’s the age at which people could be drafted and die for their country. They [those under 18] don’t have enough life experience or history and don’t know the issues in enough detail.

David Davenport, in Forbes, recently argued that lowering the voting age lacks support and, if implemented, would be tricky under the law. Along with the typical maturity and engagement arguments, he also included this partisan jab:

[Y]oung people are frequently liberal until they start paying taxes and really have to deal with the government, which does not happen at 16.

The Case for 16

Proponents disagree with these arguments. They have a laundry list of “whys” a 16-year-old should have the right to vote:

  • Youth voting will increase the likelihood of future voting;
  • Voter turnout will increase with a lower voting age;
  • Working 16-year-olds who pay taxes suffer taxation without representation;
  • If being “uninformed” is a voting disqualification for 16-year-olds, why isn’t it a disqualification for our population of “uninformed” adults?;  
  • In choosing between issues/candidates, a 16-year-old can’t choose wrongly; a vote has no right or wrong answer; and
  • Shifting demographics, as when older voters greatly outnumber younger voters, can undermine youth interests in local elections.

And if you want to get all “sciencey” about it, Professor Laurence Steinberg distinguishes between hot cognition (activities that suffer from emotion and time pressure) and cold cognition (activities that allow measured thinking and consultation). Applied to voting age, he says:

Cold cognition is relevant to matters such as voting or granting informed consent for medical procedures, for example. Adolescents can gather evidence, consult with others and take time before making a decision. Adolescents may make bad choices, but statistically speaking, they won't make them any more often than adults.

A later age of majority is more sensible for matters that involve hot cognition, such as driving, drinking and criminal responsibility.

The Digital Age: Anther Reason It’s Time

Listen closely to what Ted Kennedy had to say in support of the 26th Amendment (i.e., lowering the voting age to 18): 

[O]ur young people today are far better equipped -- intellectually, physically, and emotionally -- to make the type of choices involved in voting than were past generations of youth. Many experts believe that today's 18 year-old is at least the equal, physically and mentally, of a 21 year-old of his father's generation, or a 25 year-old of his grandfather's generation.

The contrast is clear in the case of education. Because of the enormous impact of modern communications, especially television, our youth are extremely well informed on all the crucial issues of our time, foreign and domestic, national and local, urban and rural.

Kennedy’s last sentence is perfectly written for today’s 16-year-olds:

Because of the enormous impact of modern communications, especially television [the Internet and social media], our youth are extremely well informed on all the crucial issues of our time, foreign and domestic, national and local, urban and rural.

Tapping into the Internet and social media, 16-year-olds are immersed in information. According to a 2015 study from the PEW Research Center:

  • 92% of teens (ages 13 to 17) report going online daily;
  • 87% of teens have or have access to a desktop or laptop computer;
  • 73% of teens have or have access to a smartphone; and
  • 76% of teens use social media (with 81% of older teens using the sites, compared with 68% of teens 13 to 14).

Like television before it, modern technology – i.e., the Internet and social media – is educating 16-year-olds on crucial issues. Sure, they’re also gaming, texting and sharing memes, but child’s play doesn’t automatically disqualify 16-year-olds from the more adult uses.

So what are the adult uses?

One adult use is “news.” Business Insider asked a group of teens how they get their news. They pointed to social media and the Internet, with one panelist describing social media as his “newspaper.” This doesn’t differ much from the 6-in-10 American adults who get their news from social media.

Another adult use is “politics.” How 16-year-old voters might use social media can be gauged from Millennials, the most recent generation to start voting. In another Pew study, Facebook was deemed the most common Millennial source for news about government and politics:

When asked whether they got political and government news from each of 42 sources in the previous week (36 specific news outlets, local TV generally and 5 social networking sites), about six-in-ten Web-using Millennials (61%) reported getting political news on Facebook. That is 17 points higher than the next most consumed source for Millennials (CNN at 44%).

Millennials’ reliance on Facebook for political news is also almost exactly on par with Baby Boomers’ reliance on local TV (60%).

16 ... Your Time Is Now

American-sympathizer and British Prime Minister William Pitt once said:

God forbid, my Lords, that there should be a power in this country of measuring the civil rights of a subject by his moral character ....

If you’re a 16-year-old, you probably think, echoing Pitt, that America’s measuring your voting rights by an arbitrary number. Historically, this isn’t so; 45 years ago, the age 18 and the 26th Amendment had their reasons. As Ted Kennedy said:

Today's 18 year-oIds, for example, have unparalleled opportunities for education at the high school level. Our 19 and 20 year-olds have significant university experience, in addition to their high school training. Indeed, in many cases, 18 to 21 year-olds already possess a better education than a large proportion of adults among our general electorate. And, they also possess a far better education than the vast majority of the electorate in all previous periods of our history.

But Kennedy’s “today” was over 4 decades ago.

Today’s 16-year-olds are the ones with “unparalleled opportunities for education.”

The ones who “possess a better education than a large proportion of adults among our general electorate.”

The ones who “possess a far better education than the vast majority of the electorate in all previous periods of our history.”

Because of the Internet and social media, the 16-year-olds of 2016 are vastly more informed than the 18-year-oIds of 1970.

And for this reason - and a myriad of other reasons - the number 18 has now become arbitrary in measuring a 16-year-old’s right to vote.

We should not, heaven forbid, measure voting rights by the ancient past. 

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