Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Insight into the U.S. Voting Age of 18

As stated in the article by Cheng below, the U.S. voting age of 18 stems from the minimum age for draft eligibility. As Cheng states, this voting age limit is arbitrary, and changing it to 16 or 21 for example does not get at the root of low young voter turnout. Cheng argues that legislative efforts at improving young voter turnout would be better focused on "residency requirements that exclude college students and voter ID laws which disfavor young and mobile voters" and improving representation of young voters.

Leave the Voting Age Alone
by Jenny Diamond Cheng (lecturer at theVanderbilt Law School)

The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, establishes 18 as the minimum voting age for both state and federal elections. Like all lines that divide legal childhood from adulthood, the voting age is essentially arbitrary. Indeed, in modern America 18-year-old voting has become unmoored from one of its more important original justifications, which was matching the minimum age for draft eligibility (itself also an arbitrary line). Despite this, raising or lowering the voting age, as some groups have suggested, seems a waste of time at best.

The American colonies mostly set their voting ages at 21, reflecting British common law. This requirement went largely unchallenged until World War II, when several members of Congress proposed amending the Constitution to lower the age to 18. Between 1942 and 1970 federal legislators introduced hundreds of such proposals, but the issue lacked momentum until the late 1960s, when a confluence of factors — including the escalating war in Vietnam — pushed 18-year-old voting closer to the surface of the national political agenda. The 26th Amendment itself was the culmination of some creative political maneuvering by Congressional advocates, with a crucial assist from the Supreme Court in Oregon v. Mitchell.

As a historical matter, the significance of the soldier-voter link has been somewhat overstated. The amendment's passage was propelled by a small group of federal legislators whose motivations and rationales were considerably more complex than commonly thought. Still, the Vietnam-era slogan, "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote," was unquestionably a powerful claim, encompassing deeply embedded ideas about civic virtue, adulthood and fairness.

Tying voting to soldiering was always problematic, though, and it is even more so today. The contemporary U.S. military is an all-volunteer force and only a small fraction of Americans ever serve. Selective Service registration applies only to males and the possibility of an actual draft is remote. Yet there is no life moment to which the voting age might be more obviously tethered, and any bright-line rule will inevitably seem unfair to some.

Interest in improving young adults' political participation would be better focused on attacking barriers like residency requirements that exclude college students and voter ID laws that disfavor young and mobile voters, sometimes egregiously. Tennessee's new law, for example, specifically disallows students, but not university employees, from using state university ID cards at the polls. More broadly, young Americans suffer from the same challenges to meaningful representation and governance that plague our democracy at all levels. The voting age is the least of their problems.

No comments:

Leave a Comment

Thank you for sharing your perspective.