They tried to vote, and ended up with criminal records for their attempts. They organized for the right to vote, and were branded as radicals attempting to undermine the old social order.
Civil rights crusaders? Yes, we were taught that story in school. Women seeking access to the ballot box? They faced similar challenges, too.
Today, we look back on those who tried to deny voting rights to women and minorities as bigoted, biased and closed-minded. We like to think that we now see things more clearly.
But these same stories are still being told here in the United States. Invoking the same tired arguments that were used to push down the rights of women and minorities for centuries, we still deny the right to vote to millions of American youth.
This November, thousands of college students across the country will vote in their first presidential election, because they’ve crossed the magical threshold and are now over 18 years old. But what about the millions of active, engaged youth who haven’t yet crossed the barrier that blocks them from the voting booth?
After the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 during the Vietnam era, when the nation realized that it was unconscionable to send youth off to fight in war, but not give then the right to vote, it should have been obvious that 18 is just an arbitrary cutoff. So why not lower the voting age?
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue, just as was argued for women and minorities, that youth will be overly swayed by their families, by authority figures, by slick commercials or by sound-bite promises.
Yet, all of us are influenced in our political views by our families, churches, mentors, friends and the media. And if youth start voting earlier – while they’re living in their home communities – they’re actually more likely to start voting with an eye toward real issues than if they start while away at college.
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue, just as was argued for women and minorities, that youth aren’t responsible enough to vote.
And yet, in this country, people as young as 14 are permitted to drive automobiles, and people as young as 12 are tried as adults in court. Youth are held to similar standards of responsibility as older Americans, but not given equal rights.
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue, just as was argued for women and minorities, that youth aren’t interested in voting, or that they don’t understand how government works.
And yet, 80 percent of youth have held jobs before graduating from high school. Youth pay billions of dollars in sales, income and payroll taxes and they interact with the direct effects of government every day though the schools they attend, the roads they travel on and the air they breathe. All these things are regulated by a government youth have no say in choosing.
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue, just as was argued for women and minorities, that young people’s brains are not fully developed or not trained enough to reason about complex issues.
Any yet, Congress, in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, declared that “any person […] who has completed the sixth grade […] possesses sufficient literacy, comprehension and intelligence to vote in any election.”
It’s patently hypocritical to refuse youth the right to vote on grounds of “immaturity,” when our own Constitution prohibits imposing tests of maturity, intelligence or responsibility for voting.
All the arguments used to deny voting rights to youth have been used before, against women and minorities. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.
It’s time for the United States to step forward in the advance of equal rights. It’s time to lower the voting age.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry Ph.D. student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.