Making Your Voice Count: The Renewed Debate Over the Voting Age

By Adrian Flynn

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Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14th, a group of student survivors has launched a national movement to pressure lawmakers to pass comprehensive gun control legislation. The movement, #NeverAgain, has resonated with students and their families across the country. In a CNN town hall, some of the Parkland students, families, and teachers were given a nationally televised stage to speak to their experiences, where they used Florida politicians — namely, Marco Rubio — as punching bags. They have skillfully pointed out how many legislators are at the mercy of the NRA when it comes to gun control, and their powerful statements are undoubtedly impacting the ongoing debate.

The most defining feature of the Parkland movement is the age of its leaders. Most high school students don’t meet the voting age of 18. As schools are unfortunately a recurring target for mass shooters, this means that the citizens who are in some ways most affected by gun legislation can be seen as the most powerless to change it.

Changing the voting age has been deliberated more at state and local levels more than it has been on a federal one. While lowering the voting age could potentially increase voter turnout, there are people who argue that 16 and 17 year olds are not mature enough to take on civic responsibilities. However, when it comes to “cold cognition,” — which is referred to as “judgment in situations that permit measured decision-making and consultation with others” — that part of the brain is just as developed as that of adults by the age of 16. Additionally, proponents of lowering the voting age argue that it is unfair that young people are expected to follow the law but have no say in who is elected to their legislatures.

In countries with a lower voting age, younger voters consistently have higher turnout rates. This disproves the myth that young voters are unreliable. Voters aged 16 to 17 had a higher turnout rate than other voters under age 30 in Norway’s 2011 elections, other voters under 35 in Scotland’s 2014 referendum election, and 18 to 20-year-olds in Austria’s elections in 2011 and 2014. This would also make youth more likely to vote throughout their lives than if voting rights were introduced to them at 18, as they are busy completing their education or entering the workforce.

By and large, the same arguments which can be used to disenfranchise the idea of 16 and 17-year-old voters have been used throughout history to limit voting rights for minorities, women, and the poor. These arguments are along the lines of calling people “inexperienced,” “naive,” and “uneducated.” Yet these terms have nothing to do with the age of an individual; these generalizations could just as easily be applied to entire demographics of the electorate, and would still sound as unfounded and preposterous.

While lowering the voting age nationally may seem like a daunting prospect, there are many prominent campaigns across the United States focused on involving youth in elections and bills in legislative chambers which propose lowering the voting age. One of these is the Youth Progressive Policy Group working to pass the Young Voter Act, which would lower the statewide voting age to 17 in New York (yppg.org.) Until then, youth need to make their mark in politics through activism, a mentality that is especially prevalent here at Beacon, where students are helping to organize national walkouts for gun control on March 14th and April 20th. As we have seen in Florida, student activists are qualified to lead a nationwide movement – they’re qualified to participate in our democracy.

To track the progress of other youth vote measures, visit the following link: http://www.youthrights.org/issues/voting-age/voting-age-status-report/

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