Wednesday, February 13, 2008
As the buzz of eighth-graders swarming down the hall reached my classroom, I felt my stomach sink. I was definitely going to bore them. To start our lesson on persuasive writing, I was planning a discussion of presidential campaign ads. It had seemed brilliant the night before, but now, seeing students bicker and flirt their way to my door, I was positive they wouldn't care.
Once everyone sat down, I asked my students if they had been following the campaigns. To my surprise, over half of the hands in the class shot up. Students were straining, as if reaching their hand just an inch higher would guarantee they'd be called on. Nearly everyone had an opinion.
We read the campaign ads out loud, and students nearly fought over the chance to read. What followed was one of the most engaging discussions we've had all year. A girl echoed Barack Obama's criticism of Hillary Clinton for supporting the Iraq War. The angry student who normally keeps his head down for most of the period perked up and made an impassioned defense of the war. Another student threw in her endorsement of Obama; in response, another girl asked, "But don't you think we should have a woman president?" Finally, one of my favorite students, acting "grown" as she always does, declared, "They should let us vote, Mr. Schaefer."
As exciting as it was to see my students get worked up about politics, I'm not ready to advocate giving middle-schoolers the right to vote. But I will make the case for lowering the voting age to 16. A lower voting age is both ethically responsible and a good bet for increasing the United States' embarrassing voter participation rate.
Our national voting age of 18 originates with the 26th Amendment, passed in 1971 that lowered the voting age from 21. Young men who were able to fight and die in Vietnam—the thinking went—should have the right to vote as well. The choice made sense then and still does. Around 18, most people are graduating from high school; they're attending college, working or entering the military.
While these are all signs of an 18-year-old's civic responsibility, they aren't the only ways to judge someone's readiness to vote. At 16, Mississippians can own a car. They can work and pay taxes. They can be tried as adults. And—the age of consent being 16—they can legally have sex and marry. If we treat 16-year-olds as adults in so many other ways, why should they not receive one of the most basic privileges of adult citizenship?
Some adults might understandably be disturbed by the thought of 16-year-olds voting. We're so used to looking at teenagers as superficial, self-involved and naïve that it can be hard to see how they could make a well-informed decision about voting. But if we consider more carefully, many adult Americans well beyond 16 (and 18, too) are equally immature and ill informed, and while they're eligible to vote, I doubt they actually do so. Voting is self-selective; there's no reason to suspect that apathetic 16-year-olds would cast ballots in greater numbers than apathetic adults. Those 16-year-olds who would vote would be the most enthusiastic.
They have reason to be excited, too. Many of the issues that drive elections—as well as some that should, but don't—disproportionately impact young voters and those below the voting age: education, the future of Social Security, global warming, oil dependence.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of lowering the voting age would be an increase in voter participation. For all the United States' chest-thumping about representing democracy to the world, voter participation here is lower than in most other developed nations and has been falling since at least 1972. The decline in young voter participation is one driving force of the decrease.
A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement found that, from 1972 to 2000, turnout among voters 18 to 25 decreased by 15 percent, while overall turnout only decreased 4 percent. According to another study, the disparity in turnout by 18- to 24-year-olds and by the highest turnout age group was 21 percent in 1972. It had risen to 27 percent by the 2004 election.
A lack of young voter participation threatens the health of our democracy. We can raise young voter turnout, though, by allowing and encouraging voting at 16. It's much easier to reach and register 16-year-olds at high school, where most of them can still be found, than it is to reach 18-year-olds at college or on the job.
Being in high school and living at home make 16-year-olds more likely to vote. At 16, a majority of kids are still living in a community they know well. They're more likely to care about that community than wherever they're living from age 18 until they settle down. Sixteen-year-olds are also much more influenced by their parents, who are more likely voters, than the peers they'll probably be living with after 18. If Mama votes, Junior's much more likely to, so long as he's around to see her example. Parents could very well influence whom their children vote for, as well as whether they vote at all, but that's the case already. How many of us vote in agreement with or rejection of our parents' values?
If we register 16-year-olds, we stand a good chance of improving voter participation at every age. Just like any other habit that's formed early, voting young makes someone more likely to keep voting later, into full-fledged adulthood. Not only would a lower voting age invigorate our democracy, it would also give a political voice to young people who deserve one.
I believe that the RATE of voter participation would actually decrease in direct proportion to the age of the voter. Current statistics show that younger voters are least likely to vote. Adding even younger voters would likely continue that trend. What increases the participation of younger voters (and other categories, as well) is offering candidates and campaigns that speak to their issues. That is the best way to increase voter participation. When John Edwards dropped out, poorer voters lost an advocate who actually voiced their concerns and interests. Older and wealthier voters are most likely to vote, and they hear politicians responding to their self(ish) interests. I say all this in spite of having a politically aware and involved 16-year-old and a politically bored 17-year-old.
I really like this piece, especially after arguing the point face to face with Ward, I have to admire his well written article.
- Roy Adkins
Maggie, This is such a well reported article. It is evident that Ward is very passionate on the subject. This kind of involvement for young students is great! I hope that more teachers will embrace the political issues that our kids are listening to while so many older people think that they only hear the beat of other drummers. Still another good thing is the discovery that these students were actually watching the news and hearing the message. Not only did they hear the message, they were able to assign their personal meanings.
I agree, Ward's piece is well-written and thought provoking. Awesome job.