EXPANDING THE ELECTORATE #VOTE16
By J. Cottle YCL Coordinator, MassVOTE
Slowly but surely, lowering the voting age is developing into a hot-button issue, especially here in Boston. Locally, there’s a push to lower the age to 16 in municipal elections, and in Washington, our Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley wants to lower it nationally and allow them to vote in general elections.
I’ll admit, I was surprised to discover the intense opposition to granting 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote. To me, it seemed obvious, practical and long overdue.
I’m an educator. After working in local high-schools, I transitioned to the non-profit sector where I run a civics and leadership development program for teens. Every day I recruit, hire, and educate phenomenal young minds. In my role, I am a part of discussions, workshops, meetings, and events usually produced and facilitated by young people. They’re brilliant and they care about the world. According to Sylvan Lane’s article tracing the characteristics of Generation Z “26% of 16-19 year-olds currently volunteer, and 60% want their jobs to impact the world.” They’re inquisitive and passionate and I’m not ashamed to admit that on more than one occasion, they’ve even taught me a thing or two. Historically, young people have been a part of almost every major social and political movement. National Geographic speaks specifically to their contributions to the Arab Spring, The Vietnam War protests, the American Civil Rights Movement, the Tinanmen Square Protests, and most recently the March for Our Lives Movement.
That being said, it’s easy to point to the shining stars when making a counter-argument, but if we’re being honest the vast majority of teens aren’t in programs like the ones I mentioned. Critics of this initiative say that young people don’t know enough, are too immature, or that their brains aren’t fully formed and as such should not have the right to participate in democracy in its most fundamental form. Young people, (like any group) are not a monolith. It’s true that some young people are immature. It’s even truer that most don’t understand how this process works and are wildly uninformed about the world around them. I’ve seen these young people. I’ve met these young people. So I taught these young people.
My confusion at the argument that young people are unprepared for the ballot box is that no one discusses how to prepare them, and even more, strangely have seemingly absolved themselves of the responsibility to do so. Isn’t it the older generations responsibility to make sure that young people are prepared to play active roles as citizens? Doesn’t it fall to our school systems to teach them how a government works? Is it not on parents and guardians to lead by example and bring their children along to the ballot box?
What do teens have to contribute in order to be a part of the electorate? 16 and 17 year-olds have jobs. They pay taxes. Gun Control, one of the greatest policy debates we’re currently facing, affects them at a disproportionate rate. While gun violence on the whole in the US has gone down, according to research from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, 2018 was the worst year in history for school shootings. There were 94 of them.
When we’re upset, we refer to them as young adults in an effort to help them mature and make more responsible decisions. So much so, that when they commit crimes, a disproportionate amount of them are tried as adults. In fact, the Bureau of Justice found that from 1990-1999 the amount of youth held in adult jails rose 311%. While that number has begun to decline, in 2016 over 3,000 young people were still incarcerated. It would seem to me that we think young people are capable and responsible only when it suits us.
Young people are intelligent. They take tests that adults with degrees could barely pass. They’re taking care of their families, running businesses, leading walkouts and rallies, and constantly make decisions that affect the rest of their lives.
Every day I come into contact with young people that excite me not just for their potential but for the depth of being they present right in this very moment. They are people I want voting.
And for those of you that think the young people in your lives just aren’t ready, maybe ask yourself what you can do to help them get them there.