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If 16-Year-Olds Want To Vote, They Should Have To Earn It

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Top Democrats are seriously considering an attempt to lower the voting age to 16, but none has addressed any of the other rights and responsibilities that are currently tied to the voting age.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced HR1, which would grant the right to vote to any citizen aged 16 and up, and 236 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors. The lack of attention paid to the many other parts of legal adulthood makes this proposal seem more like an electoral ploy than thoughtful policy.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi explained her support for the proposal, saying “when kids are in school, they’re so interested, they’re so engaged.” Pelosi is not in the business of getting kids interested in government; she is in the business of getting Democrats elected.

Support for expanding government is highest among members of Generation Z, followed by millennials, with support decreasing for each older generation. Pelosi and her colleagues know that extending the vote to younger people would gain a reliable group of Democratic voters.

Ideology is not a good enough reason to give someone a vote, nor is it enough reason to stop someone from voting. Anyone who wants to keep the voting age where it is needs to have a solid reason for it, because Democrats are likely to push even harder for lowering the voting age in the run-up to the election.

Their 2020 odds are shrinking as President Trump’s approval rating rises, especially now that their Trump-Russian collusion narrative has evaporated. Democrats fear that they cannot win over any more of the current voters, so they must bring in new ones to tip the scales in their favor.

Republicans must offer a good argument against lowering the voting age, ideally one that does not alienate younger people (who, after all, are future voters). The left has feelings about the voting age; the right needs to offer logic. It might seem warm and fuzzy to let kids vote, but is it the rational thing to do?

Where Are 16-Year-Olds Developmentally?

The legal definition of adulthood begins at age 18, but the biological definition is harder to pin down. For starters, every human body is different, but the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that curbs impulses and helps us take logical steps toward a goal—is not fully developed until age 25.

Fortunately, scientists have a solid grasp of the developmental timeline. The prefrontal cortex is usually halfway developed by age 18. This is not to say that younger people are incapable of rational thought, or that people over 25 are always rational. This means certain biological software updates help us make rational decisions, and by the time you are over 18, most of those updates have been installed.

There is, therefore, a sound biological reason that the law begins to view someone as an adult when he or she turns 18. Adulthood is more than just voting. An 18-year-old has the right to work full-time, buy a car, and rent an apartment. In 48 states, they can also get married without parental consent.

Your 18th birthday begins your eligibility for military service and jury duty, plus your right to file a lawsuit (and the possibility of you getting sued). These are huge decisions that ought to be made rationally, so it is a good thing that your adult responsibilities kick in right around the time that your brain is putting the finishing touches on its maturation.

None of the people who have suggested lowering the voting age have also suggested lowering the age for any of these other rights and responsibilities. Voting is not separate from the hallmarks of legal adulthood, but chief among them.

The Social Maturity Argument

In addition to legal and biological maturity, there is also social maturity. Every society has specific markers of adulthood. In America, these markers are things like financial independence, moving out of your parents’ house, and deleting Snapchat. Young people today are reaching these milestones later in life: In 1971, the last time the voting age was lowered, less than 15 percent of adults in their late 20s lived with their parents or grandparents. Now, nearly one-third of Americans between ages 25 and 29 live at their family’s home.

People are taking longer to reach adulthood partly because education is taking longer. Also in 1971, 53.4 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college. The current college enrollment rate for graduating seniors is now around 70 percent. This increase in education duration is generally positive, but it also means that more Americans are not starting their careers until age 22 or later.

If someone is not mature enough to live on his own, make his own money, or make major life decisions without parental consent, then he is not mature enough to have a say in deciding the fate of the country. Should we allow 16-year-olds to vote, we would be inviting in a group of voters who have not yet fully experienced independent citizenship. If Democrats want to change the legal definition of adulthood so that it kicks in at age 16, they are welcome to argue that on its merits. So far, not a single one of them has tried.

Deciding who to vote for (or if to vote at all) is an adult responsibility, and it is tied to an age of maturity for that reason. During the Vietnam War, teenage males became eligible for the draft beginning on their 18th birthdays but were not eligible to vote until their 21st birthdays. The government was forcing young adults to risk their lives on its behalf without ever having the opportunity to vote for the leaders running that government. That wrong was righted by the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. 

If the people campaigning to lower the voting age would also like to lower the age of maturity, they need to make that argument. Until then, they are simply asking for giving minors a major responsibility they haven’t earned.