November 19, 2018

VALDETARO | Let 16-Year-Olds Vote (A Little Bit)

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After spending several hours in The Sun’s newsroom writing for the election special edition, I got home at 2:00 a.m. on election night only for both of my roommates to confirm that neither of them had voted, even after we had discussed it numerous times throughout the semester. Although not a scientific survey, when combined with the multiple people in my orchestra who told me both before and after the election that they either weren’t planning to or didn’t vote, I now better understand a scientific Harvard Institute of Politics survey in which only 40 percent, or two in five, people aged 18-29 years old said they were likely to vote.

I don’t solely blame my roommates or fellow orchestra members for not voting, though. Despite the best efforts of groups that did voter registration, chalked on Ho Plaza and arranged free rides to the polls for students, voting from college is a difficult process. Additionally, college is the first time that many students are eligible to cast a ballot, meaning that voting in any capacity is an unfamiliar act. In order to combat the democratic absenteeism that is youth voter turnout, there is one simple reform that can be undertaken: letting 16-year-olds vote in local elections.

In charge of performing roles that define everybody’s day-to-day life, such as emergency services, public transit, and public works (such as street pavement and signage), local governments affect kids especially directly. County judges can implement bail systems that create de-facto debtors’ prisons, preventing people who aren’t a danger to the public but can’t pay bail from being released prior to their trial, as in the case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who spent three years at Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack because his family couldn’t pay bail. He committed suicide three years after being finally released. A vestige of openly-racist housing policies from the 20th century, local governments often need to approve affordable housing projects that would accept Section-8 vouchers, giving them the power to deny children a chance at upward economic mobility in a country where such mobility is increasingly-linked to geography. In addition to the fact that 29 states still had smaller education budgets in 2015 than they did in 2008, education funding per student from local governments fell as well in 19 states during the same time period, negatively impacting the public education of millions of students. From judges, to city councils, to school boards, at least some people under 18 should have a say in who makes these decisions that affect them.

Beyond these direct impacts, there are also broader benefits to our democracy in letting 16-year-olds vote. Not only does doing so increase the likelihood that the 16-year-olds themselves become habitual voters, but it also may increase the likelihood that their parents vote. In a nation where this year’s turnout of less than 50 percent is considered high for a midterm election, we could use all the help we can get in bringing people out to the polls.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the arguments against lowering the voting age for local elections by two years. Critics of the proposal claim that 16-year-olds aren’t competent, responsible or mature enough to vote, or that parents may try to utilize the familial power dynamics to exert undue influence on their children’s electoral choices. Furthermore, some wonder where we will stop if we lower the voting age below 18, as if doing so will lead to further reductions and an eventual abolition of the age requirement. However, I believe that all of these counterarguments actually illuminate even more reasons to let 16-year-olds vote.

Not only are explicit competency tests not required for the rest of the electorate, but arguments about intelligence, maturity or responsibility are some of the same ones used to not only argue that historically-disenfranchised groups like African-Americans and women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, but to justify introducing competency tests for African-Americans even after they were granted suffrage. Furthermore, when even consistent adult voters have a difficult time fully informing themselves about all of the people and issues on the ballot, why not first introduce a more-limited set of choices for the first time that people vote, so that they can have an easier time researching and understanding both candidates’ positions and ballot issues. Before kids get a driver’s license, they get a learner’s permit; what would be so wrong with a democratic learner’s permit?

In regard to parental influence, the relative ease of ability in understanding local issues means that kids would rely less on their parents to be sources of information, and therefore lessen the chances of any worst-case-scenario manipulation. Furthermore, with parents already expected to vote with the best interests of their children in consideration, is it somehow different for kids to consider the interests of their parents when voting? Is it so bad to partially enfranchise a group of voters that would give a little more weight to the future consequences of public policy than the current electorate?

Finally, the idea that we should be wary of where lowering the voting age could lead is a slippery-slope argument of the most pernicious kind, recently seen in the fear-mongering form of suggesting that legalizing gay-marriage will somehow lead to polygamy, incest and bestiality all being legalized as well. In a country with a conservative bias that prevented voting rights from being extended to all people for nearly 200 years, and where the constitution has been amended only 17 times in the 227 years since the tenth amendment was ratified, change occurring too rapidly should be the least of our concerns.

This is especially the case given that suffrage for 16-year-olds is not a novel, untested idea. Austria, Brazil, and Scotland are among the several nations that allow 16-year-olds to vote, and research on their voting habits in the first and last of these nations argues that they are just as engaged in politics as older members of the electorate. There are even four localities in the U.S. that have already taken this step. In Takoma Park, Greenbelt and Hyattsville, Maryland, 16-year-olds can vote in all local elections, while in Berkeley, California they can vote in school board elections.

This is perhaps the most appealing aspect of this type of electoral reform; just like those on the ballot this year in states such as Michigan, Colorado, Utah and Florida, extending the franchise to 16-year-olds is a reform that can be taken up by normal members of the electorate. Whether through a ballot initiative or lobbying local elected officials, changes of this sort are much easier on a local level than a national one.

Nearly half-a-century after the last significant expansion of the electorate, it’s once again time we extend the franchise to a new group of people. County by county, city by city, it’s time we let 16-year-olds vote (a little bit).

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Setting the Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com