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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Why America suffers without teenage suffrage

    With the vast majority of votes tabulated, the results of Super Tuesday have been finalized.

    While the results largely lined up with predictions, one outcome surprised many analysts: the highest youth turnout of all time. The number of votes from those between the ages of 18 and 24 has doubled, even tripled, in many states.

    The youth vote is still dwarfed by the behemoth influence of the old, however. Since 1972, the youth vote has dropped as a percentage of overall votes in national elections from 14 percent to 9 percent. To confront the most pressing social problems of the next generation, American voters should seriously consider expanding the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.

    The idea of voting as an age-based right of passage has roots in archaic English laws of knighthood. When a man was considered old enough for military service, having polished enough armor and burned enough witches, he was deemed worthy of a vote. Age benchmarks today, however, should be a flexible, not static, measurement of adolescent development. Regardless of the means of granting ‘adulthood’ to children, the intent of age-based thresholds is to recognize when children can be considered influential and independent actors in society.

    Within the last half-century, youth maturity and independence dramatically changed. A majority of teenagers now have personal cell phones, personal cars, and even personal credit cards. Youth-targeted products, such as text-messaging, YouTube, and online social networking are quickly becoming integral and influential aspects of society. While tech-tact is by no means synonymous with maturity, teenagers have never wielded such cultural influence.

    The influence of independent teenagers doesn’t stop at Facebook. An increasing number of teenagers are working. One study concluded that the yearly tax contribution of teenagers was upwards of $9.7 billion (including sales tax). The right to influence how your tax money is spent is an essential and founding principle of this country.

    Suffrage is one of the slowest barometers of social inclusion. In many other areas of society, teenagers are already treated as adults. 16- and 17-year-olds are trusted to drive, tried as adults in court, allowed to work and fight in the military. From 1990 to 1995 alone, the number of teenagers in adult prisons increased 47 percent. Why do we perceive teenagers as mature enough to drive and be convicted of murder, but not capable of voting on a bond referendum? We must question which is the larger threat to society.

    For many, though, the question of expanding the youth vote comes down to a subjective prejudice of generational immaturity. Youth have been largely denied the vote because older, more experienced policy setters doubt teenagers are capable of making an informed decision. This question is largely irrelevant in a democratic society, however. Do we deny a vote to uneducated adults? Do we deny a vote to the senile elderly? Unfounded prejudices of perceived competence were the same points that kept women and blacks from receiving the right to vote.

    The fear that teenagers are too immature or too uneducated to make an informed vote is not only hypocritical, but also illogical. The dangers of expanding the youth vote to include the crest of the MySpace generation are negated by basic probability theory. Bryan Caplin, Economics professor and director of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, demonstrates in his book, “”The Myth of the Rational Voter,”” that the effects of an uninformed voter are negligible in an election. Since uninformed voters are equally likely to pick any number of candidates, the distribution of uninformed votes will cancel itself out.

    Building off this point, mildly informed first-time voters would likely mirror the votes of their parents, posing little to no net effect between the two parties. Informed and interested youth voters, however, would be given the voice they deserve as tax-paying, culture-influencing citizens.

    Expanding the youth vote is not unprecedented. Many countries, including Germany, Austria, Israel, Nicaragua and Sudan give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local

    elections. In most countries, policy setters fear the activism of the student generation, not apathy.

    Fear of an expanded youth vote in America stems not from a fear of uneducated votes, but trepidation about the influence they might wield. The voice of the younger generation is just what American politics needs to unburden itself from crippling entitlement programs. The elderly have a disproportionate influence on the political system; this can be seen no clearer than in the institutions of Medicare and Social Security spending. These vested interests may keep the heater running today, but provide no investment for the future. The issues most teenagers are concerned about – the environment, education, poverty – are issues with long-term impact, which should be the focus of all government programs.

    American voters would be wise to quickly enfranchise youth voters. The impending flood of entitlement spending promises is already cracking the dam.

    Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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