Bad Idea of the Month: 16-Year-Olds Voting

After three weeks of cautious waiting, we finally have the worst idea of February 2018. It comes hot on the heels of the devastating school shooting last week in Parkland, FL that killed 17 people and injured over a dozen more. Since that tragedy, there have been proposals from the right and left sides of the political spectrum that range from the infeasible and ridiculous (get rid of all guns, give everyone a gun) to the reasonable and measured (stricter background checks, armed school security). Yet some commentators, almost exclusively from the progressive left, have attached themselves to a solution that addresses a nonexistent problem: lowering the voting age to 16.

What does that have to do with the school shooting, you might ask? Well, in the days following the event a few students from the affected high school have been seemingly omnipresent on cable news, sympathetically pleading for stricter gun control measures. It is an entirely separate debate as to whether the survivors of very recent traumas should be plastered on national television to tell their stories, as well as whether these survivors have any enhanced credibility or expertise on the subject solely given their traumatic personal experiences. Putting those questions aside, what these commentators are proffering is a reduction in the voting age from 18 to 16. Here’s a brief sampling of their opinions on the matter:

There was even a CNN op-ed on the issue, where the author talks optimistically about increased voter turnout and engagement, better civic values, and how the brain development of 16-year-olds supports their ability to make reasoned decisions. This is, to be frank, unadulterated bullshit.

Let’s address these points one-by-one. First, the author discusses increased turnout and engagement in voting, something that may seem reasonable given the advocacy of the students from the Parkland high school as well as the generally younger age range of protestors overall. This anecdotal evidence is overwhelmed by a tide of statistics. The US Census Bureau collects detailed data on voting after each election, and breaks this down by many factors, including age. As the chart below clearly shows, the youngest generation consistently lags all older cohorts in rates of voting, and this has persisted since at least 1980. Reducing the voting age to 16 would increase the number of eligible voters, but in no way would it make them more likely to vote given all of the available evidence.

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Chart of US voting rate by age cohort.    Source: US Census Bureau

The claim that civic values would be better, or that our collective ‘political IQ’ would increase if we added 16-year-olds to the voting population is silly. Why do “teens between 14 and 18 have far better BS detectors” than adults? The answer is that they don’t. Teens often make awful life decisions, get preoccupied with mindless blather, are influenced heavily by their hormones (literally), and have incredibly short attention spans. They also actually don’t know enough about civics, history, or life in general to be informed, intelligent voters. Bear in mind that these children still have 2 years of high school remaining (on average).

That brings me to my final point, which was most bothersome about this CNN article. It drastically mischaracterizes the nature of adolescent brain development to push the author’s political point. In the article, it states that “[studies show] that brains are fully formed for ‘cold cognition,’ or reasoned, deliberate decision making, by age 16, which is the kind of thinking needed for voting.” This claim, about those thinking systems being fully formed by age 16, is true, yet the author leaves out the critical detail: 16-year-olds in practice are unable to properly use these functions due to other parts of their brains not being fully developed. The frontal cortex, which fully develops later, allows humans to subdue the fight-or-flight amygdala and actually make reasoned, careful decisions. Teens do not have the capability to “think before they act, pause to consider the consequences of their actions, or change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors.” I would contend that those aspects of thought are required in some form before one can be trusted to vote in society.

Overall, I don’t actually believe that this ‘effort’ is going anywhere, as the idea is simply too foolish to take seriously. The push for reducing the voting age from 21 to 18, which resulted in the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1971, made sense as 18-year-olds were being drafted into military service in Vietnam. Those draftees should have the right to vote on their forced service, whereas that compelling rationale is nonexistent today. We will see if this idea gains any traction going forward, but if it does I will eat my hat (and if you know me, you know that I own many, many hats).

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