Recently, I was asked what I thought about the prospect of lowering the voting age. My gut reaction, “Let kids vote? There are a lot of adults I don’t think should be allowed to vote.” As I considered the question more I realized that there is a reason I don’t want a lot of adults to vote, and lowering the voting age, if combined with education, might help fix that problem.
Winston Churchill reportedly said, “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter.” My biggest problem with the American public has been that I agree with Churchill. I spent a large part of my adult life being angry with other adults because of their knowledge of issues in an election, or more often their apathy. On average about 60% of eligible voters participate in a presidential election, only 40% in a midterm election. Those numbers are ridiculously low. We all have a large stake in what these elections mean. Yet, we do not participate. Voting is not a societal norm in this country. When you ask someone if they voted, their answer is largely inconsequential. It’s more small talk than important talk. So, one would ask, “How would lowering the voting age help?” I’m not sure it would, but with participation by schools I think it could.
I’ve long thought Election Day should be a federal holiday. What better message of support for democracy could we send than saying on Election Day everyone takes the day off to go be part of the process. It could be extraordinary. Imagine a day when our officials our elected by 80% of eligible voters. We could really begin to see what America believes. Now, imagine a day when that 80% is well-informed about the issues. It could be even better.
So how does this relate to lowering the voting age? I’m glad you asked. We need to teach people to participate. Think about this. If math were taken out of the curriculum except for a semester in you senior year, you wouldn’t learn much about math. That is exactly how much government and civics is taught to our youth. I can’t speak for everywhere in the country but I took “social studies” for a long time. I took one semester of “government.”
Some things about the structure of government are covered in a social studies class, but not enough. We need to include government in all levels of education. Some of these would be minor. I remember having a small mock election in 1st grade. It was 1988. Then Vice President Bush was running against Micheal Dukakis. We didn’t know anything about the candidates, but I distinctly remember it as my first exposure to the election process. The next one I remember was 1992, we had a mock election where we actually went into a voting booth and filled out a small paper ballot for President. Ross Perot won in a landslide. I don’t remember being taught to much about the process again until my senior year. That would have been Aug. 1999-May 2000. There was no election that year. In Nov. 2000, the first election I could have voted in, I didn’t. Voting, as a civic duty, had not been instilled in me. I guess I still haven’t answered how lowering the voting age helps, so let me. If we lower the voting age, we can teach teenagers to participate. We can teach them to look at candidates, and the issues, not the attack ads. We can teach them that America is about everyone voicing their opinion.
Imagine for a moment that every election every child took part. In younger grades it would be like the mock elections of my memory. We would be showing kids that voting is important. We would also be instilling the value that participation is important. In high school everything would take on more importance. What if every year that there was an election, every child had to take one hour of civics, or government, or election class; whatever you want to call it. Every high school student would spend one hour of their day in a class where they discussed the process of elections; how to vote, where to vote, why to vote. Then, by the time Election day rolled around they went to a polling place and cast their vote, for real. If the voting age was 14, then every student who came out of high school would have voted in at least one Presidential and one midterm election. They could be taught to look at candidates and issues. When the voting was over, they would have time to discuss what that election meant to them.
If we made voting something that every high school graduate had already done before, we would make it something they will do again. We will never get everyone to participate. Some see their lack of participation as a protest. Others are disillusioned with the process. However, we are not trying to make the electoral process important. We could. We should. And America will only be better for the more voices that are heard.