Have you heard? The National Youth Rights Association is working with select politicians to lower the voting age to 16. Even after successfully lowering the voting age to 18 in 1971 with the passage of the 26th Amendment, there is continued work on this issue.
Back then Sen. Ted Kennedy told us “I believe the time has come to lower the voting age in the United States, and thereby to bring American youth into the mainstream of our political process. To me, this is the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation if we are to succeed in bringing our youth into full and lasting participation in our institutions of democratic government.”
Great sentiment. I’m just not sure that it is a realistic or smart goal for governing a nation.
Supporters of the voting age being lowered to 16 have a wide variety of reasons for being in favor of the idea. The say that teenagers are affected by local political issues. Some teens work without limits on hours and pay taxes on their income. They remind us that a 16-year-old can drive in most states.
Those who wish to lower the voting age say that voting is a smart way to engage teens in civics classes. They use data from nations that have changed laws as examples that having the voter age lower works. Finally, they tell us that to make voting a habit we must begin while citizens are young.
These are compelling arguments. On the surface. I turn to history for us to learn the effects of lowering the voting age.
The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971. According to the Census data, voting in that age group dropped every year until 1980. After a slight increase in 1988 drops increased until a historic low in 1996.
Today, around 35 percent of eligible young adults 18—24 vote. After all these decades of effort to engage young voters the median age of voters in presidential elections is 42. At the risk of being flip, I must say that apparently, the politicians in favor of lowering the voting age don’t know much about teenagers.
I’d rather have us look at those who work successfully with teens. There is a national movement by teens for teens. Teen Court is an alternative court system where teens who break the law are judged by their peers. We have one in Colorado Springs.
Teen court exists to get offenders to be accountable for their actions. They assist young offenders in understanding the harm that they have caused, giving young defendants the chance to redeem themselves. Teen Court also tries to discourage them from causing further harm to themselves or others.
Our Colorado Springs Teen Court has helped 9,000 teens over 25 years. Only 7 percent have committed a second offense. Sentences can include apologies, community service, restitution, special projects, and classes on a variety of subjects including job prep.
When you add up how much it costs to lock up a teenager (long- or short-term), Teen Court has saved our city millions of dollars.
Turning a teen from crime is a worthy endeavor that we should all support.
Teen Court is effective at working with children because they know that children should not receive the same treatment as adults because their brains will not be fully developed until around age 23. We have different legal systems and diversion programs for teens because they should not have the same kind of accountability or punishment as an adult.
This program has the level of success that it does — 93 percent effectiveness from knowing what works with children (aka teens) aged 13—18.
Our community, state and nation should follow the Colorado Springs Teen Court example of excellence and treat teens according to their development level and give them adult assistance in important matters until they are ready to go on their own. At 18.
Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.