Only 10 percent of voters in the May 23 Arkansas primary election were under 35 years old, according to a July 4 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis. That was down from 12 percent in 1998.
Low voter participation among young people is nothing new, but whenever the topic comes up, the phenomenon is attributed to a combination of indifference, cynicism and laziness.
Russia, however, may have hit upon a solution: get 20-somethings into elected office. The country’s ruling party decided in April that 20 percent of their federal and regional candidates must be between 21 and 28 years of age.
I had a similar idea in 2000, when I wrote the following essay for a contest sponsored by the Center for Voting and Democracy. (Some edits were made for length.)
n The reason why young people don’t vote can be found in the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers, progressive and tolerant as they were, saw fit to cite age as the only limitation to holding a federal elected office.
In a document that rightly stands as a model for modern liberal democracy, neither race, gender, religion nor creed are mentioned as being relevant to the qualifications of a representative. This only serves to emphasize the degree to which age discrimination is rooted in the American political system.
From the beginning, those under 25 (the minimum age for a member of the House of Representatives) have been treated as less-than-equal citizens, so it is no surprise or coincidence that men and women aged 18-25 represent the demographic group that votes the least.
The age requirements mandated in the Constitution for the House, Senate and presidency are arbitrary to say the least. What makes a 25-year-old more qualified to represent his or her fellow citizens than an 18-year-old? Why do the responsibilities of a senator require five additional years of life experience over that of a representative?
Some may contend that a certain level of maturity is necessary for such important positions, or that the age restrictions ensure that only those who have a personal and professional stake in the community can stand for office. Interestingly enough, these same arguments were used against women who campaigned for the right to vote in the early years of the 20th century. Women did not have the “temperament” to make important decisions, according to popular sentiment, and why should they vote if they didn’t own property or have jobs? Of course, the same logic was used to defend the original positioning of the voting age at 21.
When a citizen turns 18, the law regards him or her as an independent entity, capable of voting, paying taxes, and serving in the military. To deny this citizen the opportunity to hold federal elected office is inconsistent and discriminatory. Voters should be the judge of a candidate’s abilities and qualifications without the government setting restrictions based on certain personal characteristics.
Now why does this kind of age discrimination affect voter turnout among young people? In the first place, it is clear that a sense of disenfranchisement with the political system develops when citizens cannot identify with their representatives.
In an ideal world, any citizen ought to be able to effectively represent his or her fellow citizens, regardless of background. But in reality, districts with a racial, ethnic or religious majority elect members of Congress who look and think like the majority. Young people never have the opportunity to vote for people who share their generational perspective, and this understandably leads to apathy and disassociation from the political system.
Imagine if a big university town sent a 22-year-old to Washington on a platform of increasing federal assistance to post-secondary institutions and financial aid to students. Or consider the excitement among young professionals that would accompany the Senate candidacy of a 26-year-old. Do you think more young people would vote? Of course they would, because suddenly they would identify with a political figure who speaks their language and understands their interests.
With this in mind, the minimum age requirement for all federal elected officials should be lowered to 18. The American people and the U.S. government currently do not tolerate official restriction of political participation according to any other category, and our history demonstrates that groups that endure such discrimination, when liberated, become active and vital members of the polity. Young people don’t need new ways to vote; they just need a connection to the political system that makes it seem more relevant and accessible.
The right to vote is a powerful tool of democracy, but so is the right to contest positions of power. When the latter is finally extended to young people, they will find much more satisfaction and meaning in the former.