Franke: Old Enough to Vote?

December 2, 2020

by Mark Franke

A high school-aged friend of mine asked me a question which had never entered my mind. Should the voting age be lowered to 16? She was working on a paper for her rhetoric class and that was the assigned topic.  

The situation required a dodge, certainly not the formal rhetorical term her teacher would use for my maneuver, but it bought me a few moments to gather what thoughts I could. And there weren’t many that came to mind.

That is, until my 69 year-old memory finally fired up. I was in high school and college when the movement to lower the age from 21 to 18 picked up steam and eventually became the law of the land through the ratification of the XXVI Amendment in 1971.

The rationale for this change was, quite simply, the Vietnam War and its associated draft. If a young man could be sent to Vietnam to fight for his country, shouldn’t he have at least a theoretical right to participate in the national decision-making behind the war?  

That argument held sway, but too late to affect my voting as I had turned 21 by then. I should point out that during that 18-21 interlude in my life, my political attachment matured from conservative Democrat (there still were some of those back then) to libertarian Republican. College is supposed to turn young people into liberal-progressives but it moved me in the opposite direction.  

I explained to my young friend that being drafted was the tipping point back then and I couldn’t think of any equally compelling issue today. She agreed.

She sent me the outline of her speech and I have to say I was impressed with the logical progression of her argument. It can be summed up this way: Young people under the age of 18 have few responsibilities of citizenship and have legal protections in place for much of their life’s activities. They are still in their intellectual formative years and are more easily swayed by spurious appeals than those older. This she sees as a real danger, quoting Nancy Pelosi’s statement that “it’s really important to capture kids when they are in high school.” Capture? She rightly recognizes this as just one more partisan political machination.

Another of her points is that high schoolers have “practice” voting options that provide a practical understanding of its importance and the need for it to be done intelligently. There was a time when schools were expected to form their charges into responsible citizens and exercises like mock elections were a rather effective tool for that. It’s good to know that some of this still happens, but I wonder how much? 

She covered the history of the voting franchise in America, reminding her listeners that it originally was restricted to property owners under the premise that they had the most invested in the nation and therefore the most at risk. Today, everyone pays some kind of tax — income, excise, sales, payroll, etc. — so this argument isn’t quite so persuasive. Maybe it needs a new look, as data from the Congressional Budget Office show that only the top 20 percent of incomes in the United States pay more in federal taxes than they receive back in transfer payments. The lowest 60 percent receives at least $2 back for every dollar paid in. How do you think that 60 percent will incline to vote?

The XXVI Amendment addressed only voting but it precipitated state action on other restrictions on the 18-21 age group. All but three states (Alabama, Mississippi and Nebraska) set their age of majority at 18, allowing a young person of that age to enter into contracts and such, as well as be subject to adult criminal prosecution.  

One of the few hangers-on of the age 21 requirement and perhaps the most irritating to 18-year olds is state liquor laws which deem them too young to purchase or consume demon rum and its evil ilk. My friend did not touch on this in her speech and it is a subject for another day, a day well into the future as far as the grandfather in me is concerned.

It all comes down to a balancing of the privileges of citizenship over against its concomitant responsibilities. For 16-year olds, the balance is appropriate without voting rights. My high school friend is correct — there is no persuasive argument for further lowering the voting age to 16. They just don’t have enough skin in the game . . . yet.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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