Column: It’s time youths’ votes be counted

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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They can march on City Hall, they can hold rallies and they can give speeches.

But if the high school students who have been up in arms about immigration policy tried to exercise the most basic political right – if they tried to vote – they’d be turned away for being too young.

“We allow the most ignorant, self-absorbed, irrational, immature people to vote at age 25 or 50 or 79,” Mike Cummings told me the other day. “We don’t require adults to demonstrate any sort of political virtue for the right to vote. But people under the age of 18 are automatically disqualified without any rationale.”

Mike’s a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, and he believes young people should have the same voting rights he does. And around the world, there are pockets of people who are starting to agree with him.

I thought about Mike recently when I heard that a group of high school students was organizing to increase voter registration among young people. They were targeting seniors who’ve recently turned 18.

But the leader of the effort is Greisa Martinez, a senior at Townview Magnet. She’s 17. So she can’t vote.

I called Greisa, and she seems like a bright, together young woman. She’s headed to Texas A&M in the fall.

“I think people my age are capable of voting,” she said. “They’re not all informed about the issues, but there are a lot of uninformed adults too.”

So why shouldn’t kids be able to vote? Here are some of the objections, none of which seems particularly convincing.

“Kids don’t have the wisdom or maturity to vote responsibly.”

Oh, and adults do? If Democrats and Republicans can agree on anything, it’s that there are a whole lot of stupid voters out there already. But we still let them vote. A disingenuous intelligence test for the right to vote was reprehensible in Alabama in the 1950s, and it’s no better now.

Besides, I’ve interviewed many dozens of smart teens over the years who knew their stuff and had strong opinions about the issues of the day.

And I’ve interviewed hundreds of clueless adults whom I wouldn’t trust with a pet, much less my government. But they all get their turn in the voting booth.

“Kids don’t have a stake in how things are run. They don’t have jobs and don’t pay taxes.”

Which is naturally why we don’t let poor people and the unemployed vote.

A whole lot of kids do pay taxes and have jobs, of course. And even if they don’t, today’s politicians are making decisions that will impact these kids plenty when they grow up. Would legislators balance the state budget by cutting poor kids’ health insurance if those kids could vote?

Plus, most kids spend half their waking hours in a government-owned building, listening to government employees teach them a state-approved curriculum. You think they don’t have a stake in their government?

“Parents will just pressure their kids to vote the way they do.”

Sure, some will. But if you think teenagers respect authority so much that they’ll do whatever their parents want – well, I’d say you haven’t talked to many teenagers recently. The great thing about a secret ballot is that no one gets to know how you vote.

(By the way, that’s the same argument used in the 1800s to defend not letting women vote.)

The push for youth voting has traditionally come from the left, in part because many liberals think kids are more likely to lean their way.

But don’t be so sure. In 2004, when the nonprofit Kids Voting USA held mock elections in schools across the country, George W. Bush still beat John Kerry – by an even wider margin than he did among adults.

Young people voting may seem strange here, but not everywhere around the world. Iran, of all places, lets 15-year-olds vote, and teens were the main force that elected its moderate, reformist president Mohammed Khatami in 1997. (The blame for his successor, the Israel-hating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, falls squarely on the adults.)

Germany and Austria allow 16-year-olds to vote in some local elections. And the British seem ready to join them: Gordon Brown, presumed to be Tony Blair’s successor as prime minister, has already endorsed lowering the cutoff to 16.

So here’s my proposal. Lower the voting age – to 16 at first, then even lower.

If that seems extreme, remember that only 35 years ago the voting age was 21. Lots of folks said lowering it to 18 would lead to chaos. America somehow seems to have survived.

If having kids vote leads to unacceptable effects – say, Sens. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, R-N.Y. – we’ll have time to figure it out.

But more likely, we’d just have more young people caring about the world around them. And all those kids who care so much about relaxing immigration laws – or banning abortion or protecting the environment or whatever – would have a new way to have their voices heard.