Fort Report: 16-Year-Old Voting?

Apr 5, 2019
Fort Report

In 1971, at the peak of protests against the Vietnam War, the U.S. passed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, lowering the voting age in state and federal elections from 21 to 18.  It was the swiftest passage of any amendment in American history.  Young people strongly supported the amendment on the grounds that, “If we are old enough to fight, we are old enough to vote.”

Fast forward to last month.  An amendment was offered in Congress to lower the voting age to 16.  Proponents argued that we already allow 16-year-olds to drive, own property, hold a full-time job and pay income tax on earnings­­––why not give them the vote?  Studies show that voters who skip their first election at age 18 often become lifelong nonvoters.  If we instilled the habit at an even younger age, when the tradition of voting can be instilled under the influence of parents and school, maybe the habit would stick.

The drive to grant minors the right to vote has become particularly intense in light of the tragedy of school violence and other social ills.  I routinely see a passionate level of political engagement from high-schoolers every year around the March for Life, on gun issues, and on environmental protection. 

On the other hand, there are solid reasons why we do not give every privilege of adulthood to 16-year-olds.  They must attend school.  They cannot legally purchase alcohol or tobacco.  They cannot consent to medical treatment (19 in Nebraska), buy lottery tickets (19 in Nebraska), gamble, rent a car, book a hotel room or obtain several types of work-related licenses.  It is a generally recognized legal concept in America and the rest of the world that the age of majority is 18, when one ceases to be a “minor” and obtains adult ownership of one’s actions, decisions, and person independent of the legal authority of parents or guardians.

When we gradually apportion rights and permissions, we believe that young people should have the time and experience to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate their own journey free of the overweening influence of media, social media, and pressurized groupthink.  While we slowly grant select licenses (such as learner permits and driver licenses) before the age of majority, we delay several others until long after.  For example, you cannot assume the office of the U.S. President until age 35.  While there is not one set age when the brain stops maturing, studies show that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that evaluates consequences, performs complex decision-making, and regulates impulse control and attention, does not fully develop in most people till their mid-twenties. 

Parents are keenly aware of their serious obligation to provide structure, focus, and boundaries to the young.  This also does not occur in a vacuum or by accident.  Formative institutions, from churches to schools to charitable organizations to civic groups, aid in this critical civilizing effort to launch a person from childhood into adulthood.  Maturity demands time, guidance, and the wisdom of the ages.  It is, thus, not responsible to expect a 16-year-old to make an informed decision about how best to govern the nation.  It might seem trendy, but it is wrong to make such a demand on a person until they are fully prepared to do so. 

In spite of this argument, 100 plus Members of Congress voted to give 16-year-olds the right to vote.  I did not. 

Let me know how you would vote on the issue.