We should hasten the enfranchisement of this generation, born between 1980 and 1995, by lowering the voting age to 16.
Age thresholds are meant to bring an impartial data point to bear on insoluble moral questions: who can be legally executed, who can die in Iraq, who can operate the meat cutter at the local sub shop. But in a time when both youth and age are being extended, these dividing lines are increasingly inadequate.
Legal age requirements should never stand alone. They should be flexible and pragmatic and paired with educational and cognitive requirements for the exercise of legal maturity.
Driving laws provide the best model for combining early beginnings and mandatory education. Many states have had success with a gradual phasing in of driving rights over a year or more, starting with a learner’s permit at age 16. The most restrictive of these programs are associated with a 38 percent reduction in fatal crashes among the youngest drivers, according to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Similarly, 16-year-olds who want to start voting should be able to obtain an “early voting permit” from their high schools upon passing a simple civics course similar to the citizenship test. Besides increasing voter registration, this system would reinforce the notion of voting as a privilege and duty as well as a right — without imposing any across-the-board literacy tests for those over 18.
And why stop at voting? Sixteen is a good starting point for phasing in adult rights and responsibilities, from voting to drinking to marriage. In reality, this is already when most people have their first jobs, their first drinks and their sexual initiations. The law ought to empower young people to negotiate these transitions openly, not furtively.
We know driving laws reflect reality; whoever heard of the scourge of under-age driving? On the other hand, studies have shown that three-fourths of high school seniors have drunk alcohol. Surveys show that teenagers who drink at home with their families go on to drink less than those who sneak beers with friends. Imagine 16-year-olds receiving a drinking permit upon passage of a mandatory course about alcoholism. The permit would allow a tipple only at family gatherings or school functions for two years — until you graduate or leave home.
The phasing in of credit cards at 16 could work with firm restrictions. A parental co-signer should be required until young applicants have made a year of on-time payments from their own wages. The most important requirement would be passing a mandatory financial literacy test. The applicant would define “compound interest,” correctly decipher the fine print on a credit card agreement and argue with a robotic customer service representative over a mysterious fee. Surely this graduated system would be safer than handing young people a $2,000 line of credit just as they leave home for the first time.
The more we treat teenagers as adults, the more they rise to our expectations. From a developmental and vocational point of view, the late teens are the right starting point for young people to think seriously about their futures. Government can help this process by bestowing rights along with responsibilities.
Tying adult rights to cognitive requirements could also smooth the path to dealing with a much bigger age-related social problem. Demographically, those over 85 are our fastest-growing group. By 2020, the entire nation will be about as silver-haired as Florida is today. We need to be able to test Americans of all ages, to make sure they’re still qualified to drive and to help them avoid financial scammers. From a public health point of view, the silver tsunami poses more of a threat than marauding teenagers ever did.