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Archive for Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Could lower voting age be habit-forming?

May 12, 2004

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— There are days, I am sure, when all parents regard their 14-year-olds as only one-quarter human and their 16-year-olds as barely half grown-up. Even so, this is a touch odd.

In California, a bill to lower the voting age passed its first hurdle. It would let 14- to 16-year-olds vote, but only count them as one-quarter of their elders. It would give ballots to 16- to 18-year-olds, but cut them down to half size.

This plan for "Training Wheels for Citizenship" was authored by John Vasconcellos, who famously promoted the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem in the late 1980s and describes himself as "something of an anarchist at heart."

Anarchist or not, fractionalizing people has unpleasant echoes of the days when slaves were counted as three-fifths human for political purposes. So I reject his math, but I think he's offered up a pretty interesting civics lesson. When should young people get to vote and why?

It's been 33 years since the voting age was lowered to 18 on the notion that anyone old enough to die for his country should be able to vote for it. Today, young voters are not exactly rushing to the polls. In the last presidential election, about 32 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds showed up. This year, in my own college-saturated city, a store that caters to students sold T-shirts that said "Voting is for Old People."

Nevertheless, there is something of a nascent movement to get the voting age still lower. Some cities such as Cambridge, Mass., and states such as Maine and Florida have efforts to tweak the age down. For that matter, Britain is poised to give voting rights to 16-year-olds.

The truth is that there isn't any single age of maturity, or right of passage, or coming of age ceremony in our culture or in our laws. The age of puberty is down as low as 9 and the age of economic independence stretches from 18 to let's-not-go-there. You can drive somewhere between 14 and 18. You can drop out of school at 16. The age of drinking has gone back up to 21, while the age at which you can be tried as an adult is down as low as 12.

One 13-year-old, Harkirat Hanrara, asked the California Assembly, "If society feels comfortable when teenagers share the road with them, then why do they feel uncomfortable when teenagers' hands are on the ballot?" Memo to Harkirat: We don't feel comfortable with teens sharing the road. But where is voting on the coming-of-age continuum?

The arguments against pre-18 voting seem to come down to "maturity." But, alas, you don't need to pass a maturity test to vote, let alone run, for office. Art Croney, a lobbyist for the Committee on Moral Concerns, warned California legislators that teens would be "susceptible to peer pressure, even a rock or a rap song." Imagine that in a state that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger its governor!

If I were choosing, I would put my energy into getting 18- to 25-year-olds to vote. But what if the best way to get an 18-year-old to vote is to start at 16? What if the best time to get young people into the system is when they are still in high school? Still at home?

Tom Patterson, the head of the Vanishing Voter Project, thinks that lowering the voting age "would change the atmosphere around schools. Voting would be a larger issue in classrooms." Instead of mock elections, there would be real ones and schools might well, he says, demystify the ballot and promote registration.

"If you can get young adults to cast a ballot in one of their first two or three elections, you increase the likelihood they'll be out there regularly. If you miss that first window, you probably lose them."

That's not a plea to let 8-year-olds vote, or 14-year-olds for that matter. Sixteen, says Patterson, is an age we can expect people to make sense of a newscast or read a story in the paper: "If they can't do that by the time they're juniors in high school, it says more about the educational system than about voting."

Is this an idea whose time has not yet come? Probably. The fractious fractions bill is unlikely to get through California's Committee on Constitutional Amendments that meets May 26. If we want to design "training wheels," it might be better to lower the voting age first in local elections, especially school boards, where high-schoolers truly face taxation -- or rather tax cuts -- without representation.

But I don't worry about having too many young voters. If we get 16-year-olds to the polls, they may eventually drive the country there.




- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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