The writercovered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
By Chad Selweski
Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? Would it make any difference?
One of the youngest state senators in Lansing is proposing that Michigan become the first state in the nation to lower its voting age to 16.
State Sen. David Knezek, 31, argues that the newfound political activism of teenagers, sparked by the students who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., demonstrates that teens at age 16 and 17 have enough savvy to intelligently fill out a ballot.
Many aging, cynical voters certainly would cringe at the thought of voting rights extended to immature “slackers” living in their childhood bedrooms with their eyes focused nonstop on their smartphones, or spending hours playing video games.
Many 16-year-olds could vote from an informed standpoint; perhaps many more could not. Then again, most 18-year-olds who enjoy a rightful place at the ballot box have little interest in politics or current events. Voter turnout among young Millennials – those ages 18-24 -- is consistently poor, and it’s hard to imagine that most of 16- and 187-year-olds would take advantage of newly acquired voting eligibility.
Of course, many adults also fail to set a shining example of civic participation or political knowledge.
“Young people have earned and deserve a voice in our political process,” says Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, in a statement. “As we’ve seen across the country, a diverse coalition of students have set aside partisan politics in an effort to bring about positive change within our political system. … In a society that is deeply fractured by ignorance and close-mindedness toward others, their voices deserve a vote.”
The Parkland kids have withstood brutal attacks on social media and earned unending praise for their articulate advocacy of gun control and school safety. Still, are they advocating single-issue voting? Without the experiences that come with adulthood, do 16-year-olds understand basic issues such as the economy, the job market, taxes or healthcare?
Not Much Precedent
There's thin precedent for a voting age of 16. It exists in several Latin American countries and ia few other places. In the U.S., 16-year-olds can participate in local elections in a few Maryland communities near Washington, D.C.
Knezek’s proposed state constitutional amendment would let 16-year-olds vote for all state and local offices. Votes for president and Congress would likely violate the U.S. Constitution. Similar legislation calling for a lower voting age at the state/local level has been introduced in Minnesota, New York and Virginia.
Advocates argue that a pattern of election participation should begin at a more opportune time in a young person’s life. The claim is that 18-year-olds don’t vote in large numbers because they are preoccupied with dramatic transitions into adulthood, such as finding a full-time job, preparing for college or moving to new surroundings.
That sets the pattern, and many avoid casting a ballot for years to come. In contrast, a 16-year-old would likely go to the polls for the first time with a parent or grandparent, and voting would become a routine, say backers of lowering the eligibility age.
Yet this line of thinking ignores the fact that teens are much more likely to become engaged in political issues and causes at college than in high school.
Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, has introduced a companion bill in the state House. He says 16- and 17-year-olds with jobs pay taxes, so denying them the right to vote is “taxation without representation.”
There’s even a scientific argument to be made in favor of voting at age 16. Experts say that “cold cognition” – the brain’s ability to effectively sort through pros and cons before a person makes a decision – kicks in at about 16.
Arguments citing science probably won’t get very far in the Michigan Legislature. More likely, the Republican-controlled House and Senate will oppose the voting age change on purely partisan grounds, asserting that the plan is an attempt to stack the deck in favor of Democrats at election time. Data suggests that the youth vote is slanted toward the Democratic Party.
But let’s be clear: The push for a lower voting age is not being led by 16- and 17-year-olds. The advocates are adults with a broad agenda for expanded voting rights.
No Wartime Issue Now
The voting age dropped from 21 to 18 in 1971, by the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, based largely on the idea that young adults who could be drafted into the military and sent to fight in the Vietnam War deserve to have their voices heard at the ballot box. No such compelling argument -- not even close -- exists within the burgeoning debate.
Perhaps an effort to boost turnout among the 18-24 age group and Millennials overall (18-34) would make more sense than moving on to another potential electoral cohort that will also need endless encouragement to cast a ballot. After all, less than 40 percent of the nationwide 18-24 group showed up at the polls in 2016. Heading into the 2018 midterms, one estimate indicates that 36 percent of Millennials in Michigan are not registered to vote and turnout in November within this demographic.
The reality is that Millennials and “post-Millenials” represent a very mixed bag. Some are eager to make a scene at protest rallies, some just want to show up at “the scene” for the biggest parties of the year.
If the Knezek legislation fails, age 16 voting could be put to a vote via a statewide ballot proposal in 2020.
But the measure seems unlikely to create a generational rallying cry for Michigan youth. In fact, the result could be an embarrassing loss. Would more than 10 or 20 percent of the 18-24 crowd even show up at the polls to support their younger brethren?