Right now, millions of Americans are disenfranchised by our political process. They can pay taxes and contribute to social security, but they can’t vote. They can be sentenced to life in prison, but they can’t vote. Every day, their bodies, lives and futures are affected by politicians and policies they did not choose. Who am I talking about? Felons? Guess again.
We need to lower the voting age.
This is a prime moment to ask ourselves whether our voting system is yet fully equitable. Last month, Scotland made history when, for the first time in British politics, 16- and 17-year olds were allowed to vote in its independence referendum. Last year, Takoma Park in Maryland took a similar step when it allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. That’s progress, but those steps don’t go far enough. In the forthcoming national midterm elections—and in all elections throughout the United States—teenagers deserve the right to vote. Seriously.
Okay, not all teenagers. Only the ones who can work and pay taxes on their employment—which the Department of Labor says is anyone over the age of 14. (Sorry, 13-year-olds.) Taxes are an obvious benchmark, since right now, employed teenagers are literally subjected to taxation without representation.
And many teenagers do pay taxes. In 2014, any dependent youth who earns more than $6,200 will have to report those earnings to the IRS. The threshold for self-employed kids, such as babysitters and lawn mowers, is even lower: Their duty to file tax reports kicks in after only $400. Rates of teenage employment fluctuate with the economy, so it’s hard to estimate how much exactly teenagers contribute in income and sales taxes every year, but it really doesn’t matter. Voting rights aren’t based on income levels. Teenagers can pay taxes; that alone should entitle them to a voice in the political process.
This disenfranchisement is even more disturbing in light of the bizarre place teenagers occupy in the criminal justice system. Teenagers aren’t old enough to vote as adults, but they are old enough to be tried, convicted and sentenced as adults. The age at which children can be tried in adult court varies from state to state, but most set the minimum benchmark at age 14. (In some places, teenagers accused of particularly heinous crimes are automatically tried as adults.) When convicted, those children can receive sentences as severe as life without the possibility of parole. If the government wants to treat teenagers as mature adults who should be held responsible for their crimes on sentencing day, it’s hypocritical and logically inconsistent to treat them as brainless children on Election Day.
But taxation and sentencing inconsistencies aren’t the only reasons to lower the voting age. Politicians represent the rights and interests of the constituencies that elect them—and since teenagers can’t vote, they’re not represented by anyone. (The argument that parents will always vote in the best interests of their children is every bit as problematic as the pre-suffrage argument that husbands would vote in the best interests of their wives.) Some issues, such as public education policy, children’s privacy and corporal punishment laws impact kids more than anyone. And as long as teenage voices are unrepresented in electoral politics, the issues that affect them most will remain underrepresented, too.
The obvious argument against lowering the voting age is that teenagers aren’t educated or mature enough to cast well-informed votes. True, there certainly are plenty of ill-informed teenagers out there. But there are also plenty of ill-informed adults. We don’t determine voting rights by a person’s “intelligence” or level of education, thank goodness. Teenagers have no less potential to learn about the issues than anyone else. And inviting them into the political process from an earlier age might encourage an interest in government that will continue for the rest of their lives.
Other counter arguments will cite the privileges and responsibilities that teenagers do or don’t have as reasons they shouldn’t be entitled to vote: They don’t pay rent, work full-time, or support their families. But, wait—some teenagers do. And some adults don’t. Either way, we don’t base the right to vote on a person’s demonstrated level of responsibility. We also don’t base the right to vote on development of the frontal lobe (the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and problem solving); if we did, the voting age would be closer to 25.
I know that this argument will seem preposterous to many. And I’m not suggesting that young people should be entitled to all of the same rights and responsibilities as adults. After all, I’m glad that nine-year-olds can’t apply for driver’s licenses or buy cigarettes and whiskey. I also don’t think young teenagers should have the right to sign legal documents, such as marriage or business contracts. But civil rights already come in stages. We currently get the right to drive before the right to vote, and the right to vote before the right to drink alcohol. I’m merely suggesting that the right to vote come at an earlier stage.
We have to draw a line somewhere. So let’s draw it where early American revolutionaries did: No taxation without representation. If we want to treat teenagers as children by denying them the right to vote, then we should be consistent about it and treat them as children for tax and sentencing purposes as well. But if we're going to impose adult responsibilities and consequences on teenagers, then they deserve a voice—and a vote—in politics. It’s only logical.