Recently, I organized and participated in my first protest. It opened my eyes to the impact of political expression, as well as to the systematic inertia that makes it difficult, especially for kids.
There were phone calls that went to voice mail, red tape that wouldn’t fray, and rules that needed to be followed. I wondered why a protest — which was in many ways a messy, difficult process — was the only outlet high-school students like me had for political expression.
In all my discussion with parents, teachers, friends and others, I can’t see a good reason why 16- and 17-year-olds are denied the ballot. In fact, I see plenty of compelling research suggesting that a lot of good could come out of it.
Take, for instance, a National Center for Biotechnology Information analysis that suggests people under 18 are as capable of political involvement as adults when given the ballot, as they were in Austria. Or, a study conducted by Jens Olav Dahlgaard of Copenhagen Business School, which demonstrated that the presence of voting-age children in the home increases voter turnout among parents in Denmark. Teens are not only ready to vote but, when they are given a chance to do so, it improves voter turnout across ages. There doesn’t appear to be any downside.
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Teens are one of a few demographics of U.S. citizens not given voting rights nationwide. The others are residents of U.S. territories, felons or ex-felons, and those deemed mentally incapable of casting an informed ballot. In the latter three cases, there are reasons for denying the right to vote: political, moral or medical. But for children, there is no such compelling reason, besides a generally accepted assumption that children are not yet mature enough to cast an informed vote.
But aren’t they? Didn’t they just accompany teachers in Frankfort, protesting a bill that would hurt the public education system in our state?
Didn’t they just plan three nationwide protests in support of gun control and higher standards for safety on school campuses?
Didn’t they just generate a 44-percent voter turnout in their age group for local elections in Takoma Park, Md. — 33 percentage points higher than the overall turnout?
Arguments that teens will only serve to double their parents’ votes or won’t vote at all are echoes of sentiments during women’s suffrage, which suggested women could either double or negate the votes of their husbands and that women generally took no interest in politics anyway.
And the argument regarding the state of teenagers’ decision making and mental development? It reflects “biological” arguments which painted black people as inferior to white people and led to abominations like the literacy test.
It would be foolish to argue that young people will always cast the perfect vote. But they are only as susceptible to the pressures of democracy — fake news, peer pressure, voter intimidation and the like — as any adult, and not more so.
They still deserve the right to vote, to have a say in government policies that directly affect their educations, jobs and futures.
And with the recent wave of youth-led protests regarding youth-centric issues, maybe it’s time we give the movement the attention it deserves.
Parker Smith is a sophomore at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington.