The Teen Ticket: Are Teenagers Old Enough to Vote?

Proposals to lower the voting age may say more about partisan squabbles than about precocious youngsters.

Proposals to lower the voting age may say more about partisan squabbles than about precocious youngsters.
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If teens are smart enough to drive a car, are they smart enough to vote? Or, perhaps, might they hold enough political clout to tip the balance in a close election? Some observers seem to say yes on both counts, and lowering the voting age to permit adolescents to cast their own ballots has (again) become a hot-button issue in a presidential-election year.

California lawmakers are debating whether to allow, in state elections, a one-quarter vote for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds and a one-half vote for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. The legislation, sponsored by state Senator John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose), would give California the lowest voting age in the country if it passes.

Seven states (Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Ohio) allow seventeen-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be eighteen at the time of the general election. A similar measure is under debate in Maine, according to Jennie Bowser, an election policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

"It's about time that politicians paid attention to young people," says Katy Finn, a sixteen-year-old Californian who might get to vote before she can legally buy cigarettes. "We pay taxes, we volunteer in record numbers, we're a major segment of the economy, and we're full of idealism," she says.

She's even mature enough to know her limits. "The partial-vote concept makes sense because, frankly, we don't yet have the experience or knowledge to be full voters," Finn adds.

Finn is typical of teenagers who'd like to vote, says Adam Fletcher, founder and director of the Freechild Project, a nonprofit that promotes the participation of youth in the political process. "Politically aware teens see voting as a way to broaden their participation in civic life," he says.

Teens who want to vote aren't the ones pushing the hardest to lower the voting age, however. The real impetus is coming from crafty lawmakers hoping to increase the number of voters who may be sympathetic to their candidate or cause.

"Legislators believe that if young people have the vote when they are still developing their habits, they'll be more likely to remain engaged in the political process," says Edward M. Horowitz, a University of Oklahoma professor who researches voting patterns.

But Richard G. Niemi, who teaches political science at the University of Rochester (New York), scoffs at the notion that early voting would result in greater voter turnout in the long term. "So few of the newly eligible [voters] actually vote," he says. According to the Federal Election Commission, not even one in five adults ages 18-25 bothers to vote, a participation level that lags behind all other demographics. (By contrast, half of eligible voters over 45 make it to the polls.)

Niemi notes that when the voting age for national elections was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen in 1971, the participation of that demographic was initially similar to that of other age groups but has since shrunk. "[Lowering the voting age] increased the number of potential voters but reduced the overall turnout," he says.

One reason for the low turnout may be that politicians spend so much time on senior issues like Social Security and Medicare, observes Horowitz. "The elderly vote in such large numbers that politicians continue to cater to them," he says. He believes that politicians would quickly sing a more youthful tune if young adults began visiting the voting booth in greater numbers.

The key to increasing voter participation among young adults is to lower the voting age and couple that change with a strong high school civics curriculum, says David Skaggs, a former congressman and now executive director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that promotes voter rights. "It would offer students the opportunity to couple their first voting experience with their in-school civics education," he says.

Such integration is rare, however, even in states where high school students can vote. The problem, as is usually the case, is money. Funding for civics education has declined for years and has been canceled entirely in some school districts, according to Myron Yoder, curriculum coordinator for the Allentown School District in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "The No Child Left Behind Act is forcing schools to focus almost exclusively on English and math," he complains. "Unfortunately, that may mean abandoning one of the original mandates of the public-school system, which was to foster good citizenship."

Lack of funding, though, has not prevented some states from implementing stopgap measures to prepare students for citizenship. In Pennsylvania, for example, every graduating senior is handed a voter-registration form with his or her diploma, according to Yoder. Similarly, the state of New Jersey now hires sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as poll workers. "Getting young people involved will make them feel more comfortable voting in the future," says Cole Kleitsch, a civics-education specialist who coordinated the New Jersey program.

Other schools have restructured their curriculum so that civics education is built into more basic subject matter. In Hudson, Massachusetts, for example, superintendent of schools Shelley Berman instituted a program in which tenth through twelfth graders organize themselves into clusters focusing on common areas of interest, such as technology or the arts. "If we can get young people engaged in real decision making and a real political process, there's no question that they'll end up being better citizens," says Berman.

Unfortunately, both additional funding for civics education and the wider movement to lower the voting age look likely to run aground on the shoal of partisan politics. Opposition to both efforts comes primarily from Republican legislators, who look askance at the prospect of a younger pool of voters. In Iowa, for example, four Democrats recently sponsored a proposal to drop the voting age for primaries to seventeen, while Republicans spearheaded its defeat. The same political battle lines have been drawn in California.

The reason behind the partisanship is obvious. "There's a general understanding that a lower voting age would result in a larger number of Democratic voters," says Horowitz. According to a survey of fifteen- to twenty-five-year-olds jointly conducted by Democratic and Republican pollsters, 32 percent identified themselves as Democrats, while only 28 percent said they consider themselves Republicans. Those four percentage points could easily become important in states where the electorate is evenly split between the two parties, especially if newly enfranchised young people start voting.

To teens like Finn, however, the partisan squabbles are far less important than the statewide issues on which she might soon be called upon to vote. "As a group, teens have three big concerns," she says. "The first is abortion rights and the second is gay marriage." The third? "Lowering the drinking age."

Geoffrey James is the author of numerous books and articles and a former adjunct faculty member at Boston University. Write to Geoffjames@aol.com.

This article originally published on 9/14/2004

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