House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she wants to enfranchise 16 year olds. Pelosi is right that we need a national conversation about voting age. But that conversation should be about raising the age to 25.
In the Anglo-American legal system, traditionally people reached majority at 21. In 1971, the 26th amendment forced states to enfranchise citizens at 18.
I well remember the debate over lowering the voting age. The argument for the 18-year old vote was not fact-based. Its principal justification was the slogan: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!” The slogan’s appeal lay in the fact that America was conscripting millions of hapless young men for an unpopular war in Vietnam.
Of course, the slogan is a non-sequitur: The attributes that enable one to serve as a buck private are not the same as those of a responsible voter. Since only males were being drafted, the slogan didn’t explain why we should extend the vote to 18-year old women as well. Moreover, if there should be a connection between military service and suffrage, then arguably suffrage should come only after one’s military obligation is discharged. (Some republics have, in fact, adopted that rule.)
The real reason for the 26th amendment was to reduce young people’s opposition to the war. In other words, the 26th amendment was an overreaction to a temporary political need — always a poor reason to change the Constitution. I remember figuring all this out at the time and therefore opposing the change, even though I would benefit personally from the lower voting age.
Unfortunately, most people didn’t figure it out. States went even farther than the amendment required by dropping the age of majority to 18 for all purposes.
These foolish decisions contradicted what almost every parent who has finished raising kids knows: Celebrating an 18th birthday is not a good measure of civic maturity. Those who benefit politically from youthful voting will deny this, but the evidence on the point is overwhelming. Indeed, subsequent experience has induced us to repeal step-by-step the decisions made then.
For one thing, science has discovered that the brain does not fully mature until age 25. So it is not surprising that the record of governance in most countries that allow 16 year olds to vote — Brazil, Nicaragua, Argentina, etc. — has been truly wretched.
In America specifically, we have seen how improvident borrowing by young “adults” contributed to a college debt crisis. We have witnessed the slaughter by young people on the highways. That’s why all states (with federal prodding) have hiked the drinking age to 21. Some states also have raised the driving age and imposed additional restrictions on youthful drivers. Youthful abuse of tobacco and other drugs have led to more restrictions on access to those products.
In recognition that most post-adolescents remain dependent on others, the Obamacare law lets them remain on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26.
Clearly, lowering the age of majority has not been a success.
Restoring it to 21 would be a step in the right direction, but it would not be enough. As Obamacare supporters (including Speaker Pelosi) have implicitly recognized, there are compelling reasons for a higher age.
One reason is the scientific finding referred to earlier: cerebral maturity arrives at 25, not 21. Another is that it now takes far longer for people to learn how the world works than it used to. Life is far more complicated than it was in, say, 1900; and far more young people remain in ivory tower insulation from its realities.
There is also the rising age of practical independence. The American Founders recognized that for decision making to work well, the decision maker has to be able to exercise independent judgment. (That insight forms a basic principle underlying many provisions in the U.S. Constitution.)
In 1900 a 21-year-old frequently was a self-supporting taxpayer with a job, a spouse, and a deep stake in neighborhood and society. Today many of that age live an unanchored life at the expense of parents, the government, loans, and grants.
There is another difference from earlier times: If the “old enough to fight” mantra ever made sense, it makes none today. Military conscription has not existed in America for over 45 years. (Anyway, we could exempt active service members from a voting-age hike.)
Proposals to enfranchise 16-year-olds are either frivolous or attempts to seize partisan advantage. But raising the voting age to 25 should be on the national agenda.
Rob Natelson is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the nonprofit Independence Institute in Denver. He served as a law professor for 25 years at three different universities, and has been active in small business and politics.