In 1776, in a small building in Philadelphia, America’s Founding Fathers signed a document that would shape the history of the United States, and potentially the world. The Declaration of Independence. This document declared, that in the face of the abuse brought upon them by King George and Parliament, the colonies would separate and become their own sovereign and independent nation. The following war lasted nearly 8 years and brought incredible suffering to those on both sides. So why? Why did these colonies feel the need to rebel and rise up in the face of such assured defeat? Taxes. A hatred of taxes (things haven’t changed have they). Now, it wasn’t just the taxes that Britain levied against the colonies, it was the fact that the colonists had no voice in how these taxes were dispersed or how the revenues were spent, or as Patriot James Otis said in 1765 “taxation without representation is tyranny”. However, many were quick to point out after the fact that despite this many groups in the new United States were still faced with oppression chiefly women, indigenous groups, and slaves. Although it took far too long, and cost far too many lives, suffrage has finally been granted and enshrined in the Constitution in the 15th amendment. Yet, there is still one group that is denied this right to vote. A group which many write off as being too shallow, emotional, or unintellectual to be able to cast ballots. A group who is often affected more than any other by the outcome of policy decisions, yet isn’t given a voice in the process. Teenagers and adolescents.
This concept of lowering the voting age isn’t a revolutionary concept. In fact, until the passage of the 26th amendment in 1971, many states had voting ages of 21. During the student protests of the Vietnam War, though, many argued that it was unfair that an 18-year-old could be drafted into service but not have a voice in whether we went to war as a country. This injustice rallied thousands to the cause of lowering the age of suffrage. And although today it isn’t possible to be drafted into a war without being able to vote, teenagers below 18 still have a lot at stake in politics yet are denied a voice. Many critics respond immediately by saying that adolescents or teenagers are too immature to make a well-informed decision. Yet dozens of courts still find it fitting to try kids as young as 11 as adults in court and pass life sentences? Many also say that kids will just vote their parents views not their own, but isn’t this the same argument that was used against women by claiming they would just double their husband’s vote? And aren’t kids and teenagers the ones who have to spend 8 hours a day in the schools that are underfunded and mismanaged by legislatures and school boards they don’t know and can’t influence? Aren’t teenagers forced to pay sales and payroll taxes the same way everyone else is, but not get a voice in how that money is used…?
About a week ago, Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States on a wave of populist anger and resentment towards the establishment. I know because my best friend and I stayed up until 2 am biting our fingernails in suspense and dread. A Trump Presidency was not only unexpected, it was unpredictable. This was a man who had called for massive deportations, banning of a religious view in immigrants and ran on a ticket with a governor known for his anti-LGBT stances. The next day my friends and I wept, we received scared calls from Muslims at our school who were scared to wear their hijabs, queer kids we knew were scared to go to school since they knew they might be targeted. Now, there is still a chance that Trump will be a President for everyone and will work to protect everyone in a shift from the rhetoric of his campaign. Yet that night at 2 am, the only thing I could help but feel was a deep, deep, sense of helplessness. That being 16, there was nothing I could do to vote, but that I would feel the consequences of that vote very, very deeply. I would experience the climate change brought on by resource extraction promised by Trump, I could be drafted into a war in a year and a half by President Trump, and that his cuts to education spending would drive my hometown high school into even more desperate territory financially. That even though we weren’t the chose, we would be the ones who would pay.
That night couldn’t have been in a more stark contrast to another encounter with a politician I had had almost 2 years earlier when I interviewed State House member Phyllis Kahn. She had introduced a bill in the Minnesota State Legislature lowering the voting age to 16 for all elections. Receiving little to not attention some friends and I seized upon the issue for a school project and drove to St. Paul to interview her. Talking with her I had never met an adult who believed so much in kids. She treated my friends and us like any constituent, with respect and dignity. No patronizing “this is how democracy works” tours or talks. She answered our questions and made short, concise and simple arguments. She talked about her crusade for teenage suffrage started when she found out all government documents are written to an 8th grade reading level. She went on to note how the groups of citizens that turn out and vote the most, seniors, tend to get the most attention and support from the government, while those that vote the least, young people, get the least. This was only exacerbated by the fact that most adolescents couldn’t vote at all. She acknowledged a lot of the concerns that people had with a potential voting block made up of teenagers but said that despite the risks, teenagers deserved a chance to prove themselves in the face of arguments about incompetence or immaturity, arguments that had been used to suppress voting rights for everyone from blacks to women across history.
It’s clear that when young people’s views are not being clearly represented in our political system we need change. Especially when many of the issues facing us today, climate change, the future of the Supreme Court, the debt and deficit spending, or the beginning of the governments relationship with internet and privacy, are deciding by those who can vote today, but will affect those who can’t yet vote more than anyone.