Jacob M. Appel: How young is too young to vote?

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Calls are increasing to lower the minimum voting age in the United States from 18 to 16. Supporters include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, whose proposal to reduce the federal cutoff was defeated by the House of Representatives on a 305-126 vote in March. A handful of American communities have already followed the lead of Tacoma Park, Maryland, in lowering the age for local elections. Several foreign nations including Argentina and Brazil have adopted the lower age. But do these changes reflect good policy?

When the framers of the Constitution permitted states to set a minimum voting age of 21 — since lowered to 18 by the 26th Amendment — their understanding of the role of voters differed fundamentally from ours. Voting was largely viewed as a privilege to be limited to those with a perceived long-term interest in the community, such as landholders. In contrast, today we think of voting as a right and place emphasis on all voices being heard.

Advocates for a lower voting age argue that welcoming teenagers into the political system earlier will increase civic engagement. They object to their being governed (and even taxed) without being represented. Of course, such reasoning could justify a cutoff of 14 years or even 12? (These arguments lack the punch of "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote" that justified the earlier drop to 18.)

Yet research in neuroscience increasingly shows that human brains continue to mature into one's 20s and that the pre-frontal cortex (implicated in decision-making, planning and judgment) is among the last areas to complete development. As a result, teenagers display increased levels of novelty seeking and risky behavior. Courts and policy-makers have started to take notice: prohibiting the execution of underage offenders; trying suspects as juveniles at older ages; raising minimal cutoffs for marriage and sexual consent. Lowering the voting age appears to move in the opposite direction.

Most drives for political reform have partisan implications and the effort to lower the voting age is no exception. At present, advocates are overwhelmingly Democrats. Their views may be influenced by findings that today's younger votes are more liberal on a wide range of issues and favor Democratic candidates. For instance, a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found millennials prefer Democrats by a stunning 27 percent margin; those born between 1928 to 1945 favored Republicans by 9 percent.

What is less clear is whether this reflects voters growing more conservative as they age or distinct cohorts of voters holding different values. As early as 1960, political scientists discovered that voters who came of age during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt were more likely to vote for Democrats than those who gained political awareness in the more conservative 1950s. For most of United States history, the partisan age gap was small. In 1964, younger voters favored the more liberal candidate by only 3 percent more than did older voters. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan won voters 24-and-under by 22 percent and voters 50-64 by 22 percent. The widening age gap is a recent phenomenon. As issues change, we are likely to see a reversion toward the historical norm.

Both supporters and opponents of granting women suffrage in 1920 believed it would radically alter election outcomes. It did not; wives and husbands voted similarly. In the long run, the same may prove true of 16-year-olds and 65-year-olds, and any partisan benefits may prove short-lived.

Jacob M. Appel MD JD MPH is Director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. His collection of ethical conundrums, "Who Says You're Dead," is forthcoming in October 2019. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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