Today we’ll dip into the annals of political inconsistency for a moment and revisit an article from Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg from a few weeks ago. It was published just as the fallout from the Florida school shooting was hitting a crescendo and pundits, impressed with the activism on display by the more liberal students from the school, began asking why we shouldn’t just let them vote. Bernstein was among them, publishing an article with the simple title, Let Teenagers Vote. There have been some other events complicating the scenario since then and they put this theory into context a bit better. (Emphasis added)
Joshua Douglas argues that the Parkland students organizing against gun violence are a great demonstration of why 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote. See his recent law review article here.
This is one of my longtime hobbyhorses, and so I certainly agree. Indeed, I’d go lower, setting the voting age at 13 or 14, although I’m open to arguments for making it a bit higher or lower. Sixteen, however, is to me an easy call.
Part of my case for young voting that Douglas doesn’t mention in his column is that, for me, voting is the training wheels of political participation. And yet we not only allow more sophisticated political action from high school students — everything from organizing marches to lobbying their legislators to electioneering — but we also generally encourage and praise it. The plain fact is that these sorts of activities, which no one has ever suggested banning as far as I know, are more difficult and more influential than single votes can ever be. So why should we prevent them from voting?
It’s worth noting up front that these “more difficult and influential” activities Bernstein refers to – organizing marches, “lobbying” and electioneering – are all expressions of free speech. Speech is not generally age limited, though adults traditionally tend to attempt to guide such speech in the young when they veer off in unproductive directions. Voting is a concrete action which determines the direction of the government and it’s traditionally been reserved for adults, however you define that term.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and accept Bernstein’s premise that children of 13 or 14 should be able to select our elected representatives. (We can ignore for the moment the inconvenient fact that most of the ones on television would likely vote Democrat.) This means that we’re assigning them adult responsibilities.
Much of this action was taking place in Florida. That’s the same state where adults recently sent a bill to the Governor saying that anyone under the age of 17 (and the vast majority of 17-year-olds as well) was too immature to be legally allowed to marry, even if a young girl was pregnant. And that’s a decision affecting two families, not the entire nation. I assume that Mr. Bernstein opposes this legislation.
Let’s up the ante a bit. Those same Florida adults already passed a law saying that you should be 21 years of age before you can buy a hunting rifle. If one is mature enough to select the next leader of the free world, they should clearly be able to go small game hunting. Therefore, I assume that Bernstein and his fellow travelers not only oppose this law but believe that children 13 years of age should be able to purchase an AR-15. Let’s have that debate.
What about purchasing alcohol and tobacco products? You mean you can determine the balance of the Senate for the next two years but you can’t get a beer or light up a Marlboro if you choose to do so? Nonsense. Let’s all get together with Jonathan Bernstein and open up the bars and cigar shops to anyone over the age of twelve.
With all of that as context, let’s swing back to Bernstein’s assertion that activities such as organizing a march or school walkout, getting an interview on CNN to “lobby” elected officials or otherwise engage in activism are, “more difficult and more influential than single votes can ever be.” Really? In the end, the true failure mode of this push to allow middle school students to vote isn’t that we aren’t taking the opinions of children seriously enough. It’s that you’re not taking the responsibility of voting very seriously at all.