Lower voting age to give teens a voice
August 10, 2006
At “alcohol summits” held this past spring in Windsor County and throughout the state, teens complained that adults did not listen seriously to their concerns. As a result, the young people argued, community leaders and police developed unrealistic and excessively harsh approaches to teen substance abuse. As we enter this most political time of the year, it is worth considering whether young people have been given the “voice” they deserve in helping to shape local and statewide policies.
In my judgment they have not, and the time has come to allow teens to participate directly in our democracy by giving them the right to vote. I propose amending Vermont law to give 16- and 17-year-olds to right to vote in state and local elections.
Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote would serve many laudable goals. It would help instill civic awareness, encourage meaningful dialogue between adults and teenagers, and develop, perhaps, a lifetime pattern of voter participation. It would also change the nature of the political process. Currently, some candidates make an effort to address the concerns of young people. Matt Dunne’s candidacy for lieutenant governor comes immediately to mind. This proposed reform would obligate all candidates to speak to issues affecting young people and, more importantly, to speak to young people directly. Politicians would ignore youth at their peril.
One can fairly ask if 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to vote. We have already decided they are ready (or at least permitted) to drive, hunt, drop out of school, consent to sexual relations, become emancipated, join the work force, and be charged as adults for criminal behavior. Certainly all of these activities pose greater public risks than affording teens the right to vote. Granting the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in state and local elections would be commensurate with and complementary to the existing responsibilities and privileges given to these teens.
Additional criticisms that could be levied against the teen vote are the likelihood that teens will simply parrot their parents and/or be heavily influenced by teachers. As to the first criticism, it is true that our home environment influences all of us and may affect how we vote. However, one rarely hears parents complaining about teens following their directives too closely. Most teens are far too independent simply to mirror the views of their parents. Regarding undue influence by teachers, one would hope that ethical educators would not overstep appropriate bounds. But even if they did, the societal benefit of a more active citizenry outweighs the risks of undue influence.
Here it is worth noting that this proposal only extends to state and local elections. The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extends voting privileges in federal elections to those 18 years old and older. Federal reform can only occur with a constitutional amendment. For information on efforts to address federal voting issues, a group called youthrights.org maintains an interesting Web site.
State reform, however, is readily accomplishable with a statutory change and logistical coordination. With tiered state and federal voting ages we create graduated voting privileges, akin to a graduated driver’s license. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds could vote first in state and local elections and then at 18 in all elections.
What party would gain an edge by this reform? It is almost impossible to say. Polls show that on certain issues such as gay marriage teens are more tolerant than adults. On the issue of substance use and abuse, the teen vote might help move us toward more intelligent drug policies based on a public health rather than a criminal justice model. Regarding fiscal, environmental, religious, and myriad other social and political issues, no one can accurately predict the impact of teen participation in the electoral process.
Teens and adults routinely complain about inadequate understanding and communication. Politicians pass laws and shape social policy in ways that affect young people profoundly. The time has come to give young people a greater voice in helping to shape those policies. And in the process, young people and adults just might start talking to each other more.
Robert L. Sand is Windsor County state’s attorney.