Optimistic get-out-the-vote advocates tout the flux of 18- to 24-year-olds flocking to the polls as a good sign. Claiming that better outreach programs encourage earlier voting, they're enthusiastic that the Bush vs. Kerry presidential showdown attracted the most young voters to the polls since 1992. Yet in my book, a 47 percent turnout doesn't demonstrate some grand magnetic pull between teens and politics. Rather, it smacks more of statistical shame, of youth neglecting their national duty, of the privileged slapping their democracy across the face.
Thus far, I probably sound like an adult disgusted with adolescent ignorance; instead, I'm a 15-year-old who's a solid year away from holding a paid position or driving a car and an ironic three-year eternity from casting a ballot. The ignorance I see, however, is not in America's youth but its legislation. If states were to lower the voting age to a more appropriate 16, then by 18, young voters would be two years more dynamic, two years more knowledgeable and two years more participatory.
For years, I've watched older friends at the summer day camp where I work hand over a slice of their weekly paycheck in taxes to the government — taxes for a government that has made it clear it doesn't mind teaching its young workers about the reality of taxes but prefers to keep them from participating in the mostimportant democratic ritual of voting.
It's neglect. It's an utter abandonment of our country's future-shapers. Moreover, it's taxation without representation. It's enough to make America's youth want to hurl barrels of tea overboard in protest.
More realistically, it's enough to keep the nation's 18-year-olds far from the polls in the February primary or in November. After all, why bother electing leaders who deemed them unfit to exercise the vote throughout their high school years? What's more, age 18 is simply bad timing. Consumed in the distraction of their first semester at college, many eligible voters fail to arrange for an absentee ballots. Of course, if annual voting became more habitual starting in high school, reading up on the candidates and voting while away from home wouldn't seem out of the ordinary.
Today's high school students consistently debate foreign and domestic policies in the classroom, where they're encouraged to seek the facts and decide their feelings — all under the supervision of a history department that refuses to disclose its teachers' own political affiliations and stimulates individualism. High school students, who are exposed to far more stringent learning standards than the average adult, could probably tell you more about the Sunni/Shiite schism in Iraq or the convictions of the intellectuals behind Europe's Enlightenment.
Most teens list themselves as liberal, moderate or conservative as part of their most essential Facebook page introductions. Yet our leaders seem to regard this as merely symbolic, as if leafing through political articles, posting blogs for candidates or taking ABC's daily polls are just cute but mindless efforts by kids who won't truly comprehend democracy until the dawn of their 18th birthday. The whole thing strikes me as unconstitutional — sort of like prohibiting women's suffrage or barring black voters.
In 1971, the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which extended voting to 18-year-olds. But nothing appears to prohibit states from lowering the age to 16, which would provide a number of benefits. With teens more apt to take an interest in national affairs, their passion should extend to parents who would then vote in greater percentages.
Such a parental voting increase has occurred even after youth participation in mock elections, so just imagine the numbers if we were finally to open up the real McCoy. Additionally, a lower voting age should protect the concerns of young people far better than current youth advocacy groups and help shift Washington's focus to important yet often overlooked issues such as the environment, crime prevention and poverty-reduction — all especially important to younger citizens.
Tallying the ballots of younger voters makes sense. What's the worst that could happen? A slew of editorials excoriating 16-year-olds for their lack of responsibility? Heck, we already have those.
Danielle Charette,15, of Durham is a sophomore at Coginchaug Regional High School.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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