Steve Tiszenkel
July 24, 2012

The Voting Age Debate


Here’s a little secret about me: I have a thing for terrible movies released before I was born. One of my favorites is ?Wild in the Streets,? a groovy political drama about Max Frost, an activist rock star ? think John Lennon, but evil and much worse at writing songs ? who campaigns for Congress to lower the voting age to 14. When he succeeds ? spoiler alert! ? the rock star is elected president and very bad things happen to America, but what else would you expect from a movie that came out when people your great grandparents? age were running Hollywood?

It seems like a fantasy today, but believe it or not, in 1968, ?Wild in the Streets? was dealing with a very real issue. Americans had to be 21 to vote back then, but they only had to be 18 to be drafted into the military and sent to fight a losing war in Vietnam. A lot of people, young and old, thought it wasn?t very fair that 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds didn?t get to vote for the politicians who would decide their fate. So we passed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18. But as ?Wild in the Streets? shows, not everyone thought it was a good idea.

Forty-four years later, some people are starting to wonder if Max Frost was on to something and even younger teens should be allowed to vote. The Massachusetts state legislature is now considering a bill that would lower the voting age in the city of Lowell to 17. (Because the Constitution sets the voting age at 18, 17-year-olds would only be able to vote in local elections.) As it turns out, politicians and university researchers say, 18 is a pretty bad age to encourage people to start voting. Many 18-year-olds have just left home for the first time and are experiencing their first taste of real independence. They?ve got a lot to do and even more to think about. And listening to authority figures droning on about citizenship and civic duty isn?t exactly a priority for them.

By contrast, 17-year-olds are mostly still living at home, where their parents can encourage them to get out and vote, and attending high school, where their teachers can push the importance of registering in class. The change between being a high-school student at 17 and a high-school graduate at 18 might be the biggest between two years in someone?s entire life. And that one year could make all the difference.

Experts believe that voting is a habit that Americans carry with them their whole lives. If you get interested in it while you?re still young, you?ll always want to do it. But if you miss an election when you?re 18, you might not think the next one is so important, either ? or the next one, or the next one.

Some critics say the Lowell idea is just an excuse to stack the deck for Democrats. Younger people are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates, so the more young voters, the more votes Democrats get. But not everyone agrees with that logic ? including bill?s sponsor, a Republican. The bill?s supporters hope that if it passes and the new law is a success in Lowell, 17 could become the voting age throughout the state ? and later maybe even throughout the country. It?s happened elsewhere. Five years ago Austria lowered its voting age to 16.
Back in 1968 Hollywood producers thought it was dangerous to let teens vote. We?re so used to it now that the movie they made about it then seems silly. Maybe one day, we won?t be able to imagine why anyone would be against giving 17-year-olds a role in our democracy.

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