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I am an 18 year old citizen of Brattleboro, where I have lived my entire life. And two years ago, I would have liked to vote. I would have voted on the issues that matter to me-- universal healthcare, fiscal responsibility, social rights-- these are probably some of the issues that matter to you, too. I would have voted for Bernie Sanders, because he struck me as an honest man in a dishonest place. You may disagree with my beliefs, but you cannot challenge my reasons for voting. And yet, I was not allowed to.
By the time I cast my first vote, in 2014, I will be 19 years old. I may not be living in Vermont. I may never cast a vote in the state of Vermont, where I have grown up, and for which I feel such deep affection. This is why I believe 16-year-old citizens ought to have the right to vote.
The history of the United States is marred by unequal representation and repression at the ballot. Since its conception, the United States of America has wrestled with voting rights. Throughout the 1700s, and the early 1800s, only wealthy, land-owning, white males could have a significant influence in politics. Thankfully, the battle for representation has bent toward justice. Poll taxes were abolished, and the 13th and 19th amendments were safely passed. The very validity of our democracy is no longer threatened, as it once was.
As a society, we have strived to reach the point where any citizen can be represented. However, we are not quite there. A true democracy is one that grants all contributing members of society the right to equal representation. And a 16 year old can most certainly be an active, intelligent member of society-- many are.
It is high time that we achieve another step in national suffrage, and allow 16 and 17 year olds
Ours would not be the first country to extend suffrage to 16 and 17 year olds. Germany, Argentina, the United Kingdom, and Austria have all flirted with granting 16 year olds the right to vote, to certain degrees. Austria has been the most forward thinking, allowing 16 year olds voter participation in national elections, as early as 2005. The Austrian National Election Study revealed no evidence that 16 and 17 year olds voted more irrationally than adults of any age group -- though, to be honest, that may not be saying so much. What the study did show, however, was an increase in civic participation, and voter turnout, amongst 16 and 17 year olds, once they had been granted suffrage. In fact, 16 and 17 year olds demonstrated better voter turnout than 18, 19, or 20 year olds. And five years later, in their second election, they were still more likely to vote.
Starting voting early had a lasting, beneficial effect. This finding was supported by another, in Denmark, which revealed that first-time voters 18 or 19 years old were more likely to vote than their 20- to 24-year-old counterparts. The study theorized this was because the majority of 18 and 19 year olds still live at home, where they are more directly influenced by their parent's civic participation. The study determined that first-time voters living at home, with a voting parent or parents, were nearly three times as likely to vote as those who did not live at home, and whose parents did not vote. Coincidentally, most 16 and 17 year olds live at home, too, though the older teenagers get, the more we learn to disregard our parent's
Increasing voter participation is vitally important. Voter apathy is both detrimental to our political system and a poor reflection on the citizens of the United States. Just over 50 percent of the population voted in the previous presidential election, and even fewer vote in municipal and state elections. High school is the ideal time to reach out to teenagers and begin to build an involved, concerned electorate. Political activism is popular in high schools around the country. I remember being struck, as a young student, by a presentation my older school peers gave in support of the Save Darfur movement, and struck again, a few years later, by the way in which the national conversation was changed by this student-championed organization.
Today, many Brattleboro students are working to raise awareness about greenhouse gasses, and reduce pollution. Teenagers have proven that they can be conscientious and active citizens. Why shouldn't we take advantage of this, and entrust them with the right to vote? While voter apathy is damaging our country, we are turning away politically active Americans from the polls, for no reason. We should foster the activism of teenagers, rather than scorning it. By giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote we can give them the ability to make a tangible difference in the political system around them and we can lay the groundwork for a more involved electorate of the future.
And teenagers want to vote. We do! I know, we haven't made a good try of it lately-- or ever, truth be told. We don't want to "Rock the Vote"-- the reason young people vote will never be flashy campaigns featuring Justin Timberlake or Leonardo DiCaprio. But we teenagers do care about voting; we are passionate, we have time for ideals and democracy in a way that, perhaps, adults do not. In a recent study run by the Washington Post, an overwhelming 95 percent of teenagers viewed voting as important, and over 70 percent favored lowering the voting age to 16.
But, the most compelling argument for lowering the voting age to 16 is this: it is constitutionally right. It is morally right. Voting is an inalienable right of expression, a tenant of freedom and our most direct form of representation. Do 16 year olds truly not deserve representation before our government? Who is more affected by education policy than those still in high school? At 16 we can drive cars, join the military, get married, and drop out of school. Teenagers contribute $9.7 billion in sales taxes to the federal government every year. 16 is the legal age of consent in most states. If a 16 year old can be tried as an adult in this country, as they can in many states for many crimes, they deserve to be treated as an adult at the voting booth.
Some may say that 16 and 17 year olds are too unstable to be allowed to vote -- too uneducated, too hormonal. This is not only patently untrue; it is also beside the point. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, an historic achievement of the civil rights movement, states that, "Any person who has not been adjudged an incompetent and who has completed the sixth grade ... possesses sufficient literacy, comprehension, and intelligence to vote in any election." Lack of education, or ignorance, have never been just reasons to deny someone the right to vote.
So, if we can agree that suffrage ought to be extended to those above the age of 16, the question remains, how to begin? My suggestion would be to begin right here, in Brattleboro. Allow teenagers to vote on municipal elections (imagine how school board election turnout might soar!) Let them cast votes where their impact would be most direct, and most significant. We don't need to instigate national change right away.
And, if you have a son or daughter in high school, ask them, tonight, who they'd like to vote for president in 2016. Or who they would've voted for last year, if they could. Ask them what they think of Universal Healthcare, or U.S energy policy. They're going to have opinions. Their answers might surprise you.