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Dropping the voting age to 16: good intentions, bad idea

Most young people do not know enough to cast an intelligent ballotOlder people also have gaps in civic knowledge, but they learn through life experience.

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    The 10 registered voters in the small village of Dixville Notch, N.H., wait to cast the first election day ballots of the US presidential election moments after midnight in this file photo from Nov. 6, 2012. The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, and there is a national movement to lower it to 16.
    Herb Swanson/Reuters/File
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There is a national movement to lower the voting age to 16. The organizers certainly have the best of intentions: to broaden political participation and encourage civic education.  But it is still a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

For many years, the voting age in most states was 21.  During the Vietnam War, a bipartisan consensus developed that if young people were subject to the military draft, they should be able to help choose the officials who decide on war and peace.  The slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” carried the day, and in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.

The government has not drafted anybody since 1972, but 18-year-old men must still register with Selective Service, and this requirement will probably apply to women in the not-too-distant future. Accordingly, the Vietnam-era argument still carries weight.

Why not lower the voting age even more?  One reason is that most young people do not know enough to cast an intelligent ballot. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about a quarter of 12th graders score at the proficient or advanced level on civics. 

Of course, surveys show that older people also have gaps in civic knowledge, but they learn many things through life experience. As soon as they start earning a living, they necessarily gain some exposure to an issue that pervades all levels of government:  taxation. Their first adult paycheck shows them that the government takes away a good chunk of their income. Teenagers are not necessarily clear on this concept, since most do not file income tax returns. And very few of them own real estate, so the whole world of property taxes is foreign to them.

Similarly, insurance premiums and utility bills give adults a brush with issues such as health care, energy, and natural resources. For the most part – and there are exceptions – parents insulate teens from these realities. Though this insulation helps them sleep better at night, it does not equip them to understand difficult policy issues.

As parents and auto insurers can attest, 16- and 17-year olds do not always display good judgment. In the words of the National Institute of Mental Health, the teen brain is still under construction.  Writing for the majority in a Supreme Court decision barring the death penalty for people under the age of 18, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that immaturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are more common among the young, resulting in rash actions and decisions. Kennedy pointed out that nearly every state prohibits people under 18 from serving on juries or marrying without parental consent.

Some opponents of lowering the voting age suspect that the real motive behind the movement is to pad the Democratic vote. It is unlikely, however, that many teens have a deeply rooted sense of party affiliation.  What is more probable is that they would flock to candidates with whom they identify: that is, people who are impetuous, reckless, and bereft of an internal censor. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the 16-year-old vote would be a certain 69-year-old billionaire. That’s best reason to reject this idea with a thump.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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