The Movement for Under-Age Voting
By Hans Zeiger
On the day of the California presidential primary last month, six Berkeley high-school students woke up early to protest the constitutional voting age outside of a local polling place. Instead of suffrage at 18, the high-school students propose a voting age of 16.
"Got ballots?" asked one homemade picket sign, while another read, "No taxation without representation, Where's my ballot?!?" Before going to school, the students marched inside the polling place to demand a ballot, but a volunteer turned them away.
I contacted the 17-year-old protest leader, Robert Reynolds, the local chapter leader of a small radical youth movement called National Youth Rights Association, and I asked the problem with the status quo. "Politicians have no reason to pay attention to the interests of teenagers because teenagers are nothing to them because they can't vote," Reynolds said.
The National Youth Rights Association proposes a voting age of 16 while a more extreme group, called Americans for a Free Society from Age Restrictions, says, "A Constitutional amendment forbidding the right to vote to be denied on the basis of age should be proposed and sent to the states for ratification." A similar mission led to the founding of a Brown University student organization called the Association for Children's Suffrage.
Fortunately, the concept of children voting remains far from the mainstream. In the cases of proposed unregulated enfranchisement, a child's right to vote is comparable to allowing cats and dogs to vote.
Nevertheless, Reynolds is convinced that the Constitution will be amended to allow children to vote during his lifetime. "I will still be working on it until the voting age is lowered," he promises.
Under the original U.S. Constitution, the voting age was set at 21. It was at 21 that a young person became an official adult in the Western tradition. English common law established the age of 21 as the minimum eligibility for knighthood.
Throughout time, all societies have recognized the important distinction between childhood and adulthood. (The concept of "adolescence" is only a century old.) While it is true that in some societies adulthood comes sooner than in others, American childhood does not fully merge into adulthood until the completion of formal education and eligibility for military service at age 18. Hence the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1972 that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
Since 1972, relatively little has changed in the timing of major life transitions for young Americans. Age 18 is the typical age of movement between high school and college, civilian and military, living with parents and living independently.
The concept of children voting is not a symptom of political necessity in conformity to America's republican form of government. It is rather a symptom of generational confusion, a bewilderment more pronounced in the moral culture than it is in discussions of politics.
In our time, the social roles of adults and children have been increasingly questioned. Young people who are immersed in the relativist values of the culture are blinded to the necessity of boundaries between childhood and adulthood. Instead of young people aspiring in due time to the values, norms and types of entertainment of their parents, they are trying to rush the maturity process.
Reynolds says that education has nothing to do with the right to vote. "In the Constitution, it doesn't say anything about having to have an education before you can vote," he says.
But America's founders were convinced that education has much to do with civic responsibility. "Religion, morality, and knowledge" are prerequisites to "good government and the happiness of mankind," wrote the authors of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, and thus, "schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." The reason all of America has compulsory education is so that it can train students in the great study of citizenship.
We've forgotten that. But indeed, education does come before the vote. Concerned America ought to be more worried about the content of our educational system than about flimsy, temporary get out the vote drives. We should give spend more energy teaching American history and civics than we do struggling to resist those who come to power devoid of genuine history and civics education. Citizenship is a product of education.
Children aren't about to vote, but America's prevailing spirit of radical egalitarianism is becoming more and more extreme day by day. If current trends keep up, our generation will be fighting the battle over under-aged voting within a few decades.