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Lower the Voting Age to Sixteen

CNN’s Parkland town hall this week was an American spectacle—inspiring and tragic, messy and raw. These were parents holding notes in shaking hands, parrying with professional talkers, the slimy evasions of Washington set against the brutal authority of grief. And then there were the kids. The kids! Students not only of this school but of our culture. Students of Facebook and Snapchat, of a life lived on camera, of reality TV and its narcissism, of cable news and nostalgia and mistrust and Trump. We adopted the dark. These kids were born in it.

And as I watched their rage and their poise and their showmanship, their grit and entitlement and resentment, I was hopeful. While we were failing, these kids were learning. While we were building a Death Star, Emma Gonzáles and Cameron Kasky were stealing the schematics. I was also reminded of something else: these students who have captivated our politics—who have managed to break the loop in our neutered conversation over gun violence, who have signed up to serve our country, who work after-school jobs and pay taxes, who survived slaughter and formed a movement—are told by our society that they are too young and immature to vote.

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

With the 26th amendment to the Constitution we lowered the voting age to 18 in part as a response to the burdens young people carried in Vietnam. It’s time to lower it again to 16 in recognition of the ways our society has changed in the decades since. It is a reform that is as obvious as it is necessary. Municipalities that have already done this have shown that it can work. Generation Citizen is organizing young people across the country to promote civic involvement and the chance to participate in local elections. Jason Kander, a leader in the fight against voter suppression (and host of a stellar Crooked podcast), has begun arguing for a lower age of eligibility. This is an idea whose time has come. But let’s take on a few of the arguments against this expansion of voting rights, many of which have been tweeted at me with varying levels of seriousness, because it helps elucidate just how right I am, which is nice.

Young people are too immature. It’s true that 16-year-old and 17-year-old brains are very much still maturing. There is no clear line between a child’s brain and that of an adult, and no two people grow up in the same way at the same rate. What we do know is that one facet of our minds is pretty well formed by the time we’re 16, and that’s “cold cognition,” the kind of mental acuity we employ when we cast a ballot.

If you say a young person can vote, why not let a young person buy a gun, huh? Here’s one reason: being reckless and unfit to vote rarely leaves 17 people bleeding to death on the floor of a school. The worst a person can do with a vote is cast it for Donald Trump. And you don’t have to be a kid to mess that up. Trump’s election is the baby boomer super nova.

If you think young people should vote, I suppose you don’t have a problem with trying young people as adults in court. First of all, we already do that. Young defendants are already sentenced to life in prison by a government they had no hand in choosing. Second, as a society we see the wisdom in meting out the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood in pieces. 18 year olds in Florida can buy AR-15s but not beer. 23 year olds can drive tanks but not rental cars. Believing that young people deserve a say in our democracy is not to say that 16 year olds are full-fledged adults. They’re not! That some of these distinctions are arbitrary and hard to draw doesn’t absolve us of the moral harm of denying capable teenagers a voice.

They’ll just vote how their parents tell them to. Have you ever met a 17 year old?

This creep just wants to lower the age of consent. I am including this response despite the fact that it is offered by right-wing trolls because it genuinely surprised me and came up a lot. It did not occur to me that someone would view the right to vote as a means of sexualizing children, but from the deepest part of my heart: fuck you.  

LOL Tide Pods. This charming argument underlies most responses—that this is somehow silly and obviously wrong because, have you seen the youth? Do you know what 16 year olds and 17 year olds are like? They’re oily impulsive little dumb dumbs eating poison for the clicks! Look at that rude boy arguing with a senator. Look at these kids on their phones in the movies. The kids today. Well, if we are denying segments of society the right to vote based on the worst specimens in their cohorts, there will be no one left to cast a ballot. I was 20 when we broke onto the roof of Mission dorm to throw watermelons onto pavement from a great height. (That this boring inoffensive example is the best I can offer is why I ended up working in politics.)

Some young people will take their vote seriously. Some won’t. Some will show up. Some won’t. Some will read every endorsement and argument. Some will forget or say voting doesn’t matter. Some will vote just like their parents. Some will vote to spite their parents and then brag about it at dinner in a way that will be incredibly annoying. In other words, teenagers will vote like the rest of us, except maybe more often over the course of their lives. As Joshua Douglas has noted, whereas 18 is a period of transition, 16 and 17 is often more stable, a time when we are learning civic virtues and when it would be far easier to begin a lifelong routine of voting.  

The right to vote was once confined to white men who owned land, and some free black men who managed to cast ballots between eras of prohibition and terror. Over our history, the right has expanded to include native Americans, and those born into a system of enslavement, and women, and young people. It has also contracted. It has been ripped away from southern blacks, denied to former felons, and taken from people swept up in partisan purges of voter rolls. Often, the disempowered who demanded participation in our democracy were told it was absurd until bullied into not asking again. Those who held the franchise held it close because it was theirs and because it was power. Even now we fight to restore the vote to people who served their sentences and paid their debt to society. Even now we see a coordinated effort to manufacture fear of voter impersonation fraud—a practically non-existent crime—that has made it harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots. We know the power of the vote. It is about more than a tiny say in a contest between just-OK politicians. It is a statement of citizenship. It is a symbol of belonging and of the equal dignity of people who live under rules set by their government. It is the first American spectacle.

There has been so much hand wringing about this up-and-coming generation. So much moralizing about the prolonged adolescence of millennials and those that follow, of delayed marriage and childbirth, of kids staying on their parents’ health insurance, of softness and snowflakes and safe spaces and participation trophies. This is in part the result of a positive shift—a recognition of the arbitrariness of 18 as a demarcation, of the slow and winding process of growing up. But here is a place where we can set one line earlier, not later. We can empower young people to think like citizens and adults. We can say: you are young but you are not without agency in your life or the life of your school, your city, your state, your country.  You are young but it is time you get in the habit of democracy. You are young but voting isn’t for other people. It’s for you. It has to be.

One of the many questions those extraordinary Stoneman Douglas students asked was offered by Annabel Quinn Claprood. “I just want to know,” she asked, “Will my school campus be safe when I return?”  No one could answer that question to any satisfaction. And not just in the obvious way, that it’s not possible to make such a promise. It was worse than that. No, Annabel, your school is not safe. It’s not safe at all. No school is safe. No concert is safe. No movie theater is safe. No mall is safe. No mosque is safe. No temple is safe. No church is safe. No street is safe. No home is safe.

This country is not safe for you. It’s not keeping you safe from gun violence. It’s not protecting your generation from rising seas and burning forests. It’s not safeguarding your financial future when the government borrows more than a trillion dollars for tax cuts to help corporations and wealthy heirs. It’s not investing in the economy you’ll inherit by building public infrastructure that meet the standards set by other countries. It’s not ensuring your success by helping you afford college. It’s not defending you against the excesses of corporate greed. And you certainly will not be safe from the rot in our political culture—the abandonment of virtue and community and integrity, the collapse of basic decency, that made it possible for someone like Trump to attain the highest office in the land.

In our actions, in our failures, America is sending a message to teenagers: this country doesn’t give a shit about you. Teenagers deserve the vote because the rest of us have proven that we are not adult enough to have their interests at heart. The NRA is right about the importance of self-defense, but wrong about the means. Voting is how America’s young people can protect themselves.

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