Opinion

Don’t Fiddle with the Franchise

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Posted: Apr 15, 2018 12:01 AM
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Don’t Fiddle with the Franchise

Tacoma Park, Maryland, became the first place in the U.S. to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. That was in 2013. Since then, two other Maryland towns have followed suit, while in Berkeley, California, the voting age was lowered to 16, if only for school board elections.

Now our nation’s capital elbows its way into the trend. Last week, Washington, D.C., City Councilman Charles Allen introduced legislation “inspired by the high-schoolers who are campaigning for gun control and filled D.C. streets last month in a massive protest that mesmerized the country,” according to a breathless Washington Post. 

A majority of the 13-member council has already signed on as co-sponsors to Allen’s bill and Mayor Muriel Bowser, unopposed for a second term, likewise supports the change. 

“It’s pretty hard for anyone to watch the events of the last couple of months,” claims Councilman Allen, “and not understand the pure power and maturity of incredibly young voices.”

Well, they certainly do use adult words.

Yet, “mesmerized” or not so much, one must wonder: would the “maturity” of these young people equally amaze this politician, were they advocating opinions with which he disagreed? 

Term limits, say. Or school vouchers. Or the rights of gestating humans.

Wait a second . . . wasn’t one of the demands of the “March for Our Lives” to raise, not lower, the age when a person would be deemed mature enough to legally purchase a rifle, including the assaultingly popular/unpopular AR-15?

Lowering the voting age seems odd, at best, what with our society lurching in the other direction — raising the age of adulthood for seemingly everything else. Back in the 1970s, the legal age to purchase alcohol in a majority of the states was 18 or 19. Today, the drinking age has been raised to 21 nationwide.

Advocates of lowering the voting age contend that 16-year-olds should be considered adults because they can drive, work full-time, and even be charged as adults for any serious crimes they might commit. On the other hand, 16- and 17-year-olds may still be charged as juveniles, and there are various employment rules affecting them until they turn 18 years of age.

In many states, such as Virginia, the driving “privileges” for 16-year-olds are less robust than for 18-year-olds. There one may drive at 16, as I could back many decades ago, sure. But now there are limits on other young people riding in the car and on driving later than curfew, unless or until the driver is 18.

“While one’s first reaction might be to question the ability of young voters to cast a meaningful vote,” explains a FairVote policy statement in favor of 16-year-old voting, “research shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters.” 

In full disclosure, I am a member of Fairvote’s board of directors. And yet, I can express no enthusiasm for dropping the voting age. Why? Certainly not based on doubts about the ability of 16-year-olds to understand politics or make decisions — at least, not any more unable than older folks. 

No, my problem is with what the “adults” are doing: hiking up and down the age of majority at each and every political whim (such as discovering “they tend to vote more our way”). We must think constitutionally on such questions. Consistently. The age of majority, or adulthood, should be the same for voting, gun ownership, alcohol, and everything else.

The difficulty is obvious, though: there is no magic age where maturity, much less good judgment, are universally bestowed upon us.

A Washington Post editorial endorses “lowering the voting age as a measure that could encourage lifelong civic engagement.” Beginning to vote at a younger age, the argument goes, creates a “habit” of voting that is more likely to carry through one’s adult life. University of Kentucky Law Professor Joshua Douglas believes high school, according to the Post, “provides a more supportive environment” to get young people into the swing of voting, “especially when twinned with improvements in civic education.”

This brings to mind a more ominous element to the current push for high school students to be allowed to vote in local elections — or in the case of the legislation in D.C., to vote for president of the United States as well. Many, perhaps most, of these new young voters will be attending schools that they are (by truancy law) compelled to attend — where they are under the control of teachers and administrators who have their own political agendas. 

While some maintain that 16- and 17-year-olds will usually vote the way their parents vote, their parents are not the only adults with powerful leverage over them . . . and perhaps how they vote. 

One unmistakable aspect to the school walkouts over the issue of gun control was the encouragement, facilitation and even in some cases organization of the “student agitation” by many public schools. So long as government schools act in a partisan or politically-biased manner, indoctrination and intimidation would be rampant.

Who wants a captive audience of would-be voters?