The concept of lowering the age at which American citizens can vote has been frequently discussed (especially during presidential debates and elections) ever since the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971, which lowered the legal voting age to 18.
This year, Proposition 18 on the California state ballot proposes a small but significant step towards this idea. According to the Official Voter Information Guide on the California state website, “Proposition 18 will allow first-time voters to participate in a full election cycle provided that they are 18 by the time of the general election.” The aim is to increase voter turnout and youth engagement in politics, both of which are vital in a government of the people. However, will this law really be effective in increasing the involvement of the American people in their government?
There is no doubt that the United States needs more voters. According to the UCSB American Presidency Project, only 55.67% of the Voting Age Population voted in the 2016 Presidential election, and surprisingly, this voter percentage is not an outlier. But in an article by the US Census Bureau, their statistical analysis shows that only 46.10% of 18 to 29 year olds voted in that same 2016 election (one of the lowest rates for this demographic, which is actually a higher turnout than the previous election). This is concerning, considering the fact that our democracy is supposed to be built off the will of the majority.
While most of these young adults decide not to vote, it is clear that they still have strong opinions about the direction the nation should go. Among all the age groups, people ages 18 to 29 made up a majority of the protesters at racial equality rallies, as shown by a survey taken by the Pew Research Center in May of this year.
This is a frustrating hypocrisy, since voting is by far the most effective way to change laws and policies in this government. It seems not just plausible, but inevitable, that if the voter turnout among younger voters was the same as the voter turnout among older voters, politicians would have to focus more on the issues that these younger people care about, which could lead to serious positive changes in this country.
So then why don’t young people vote? The Youth Service America organization did research on this, and they found four major reasons that young people say they don’t vote.
The first is that they aren’t encouraged to do so by anyone. Fledgling voters’ experiences are very important in terms of their engagement with politics and government. This means that if they live in a community where voting isn’t seen as significant, they will probably start to adopt the same views, and when candidates or campaigns fail to reach out, there is a noticeable lack of involvement.
The second reason they provide is that young adults don’t feel like they know enough to vote. Younger people generally are less experienced in government and usually don’t have a complete understanding of how it works, and thus are often intimidated and uncertain about voting.
One of the most significant causes of the small turnout of young voters is the barriers they have to overcome to do so. They’re not used to going to the polling station, so many put it off because they feel they are too busy to wait in the long lines, or the polling places are too far away, or the hours they are open are inconvenient. Additionally, a large amount of new voters simply don’t know how or when to register, or where to vote.
Finally, numerous young potential voters have the impression that voting doesn’t really matter. Many think that their vote can’t and won’t make a difference in society. Others aren’t interested in politics or don’t care about the issues being disputed. And some just don’t like their choices.
After looking at the evidence, it becomes clear that the real problem is not how many people can vote- it’s how many people will vote. And this lack of voting comes from an underestimation of its significance, which can be seen throughout all the reasons the young people give for deciding not to vote. The environment they grew up in didn’t promote it, so they don’t understand how vital it is to this nation. They feel underqualified to vote, because the process was never explained to them. They think they’re too busy to vote because they don’t see its value, or they just don’t know where or when to go because they haven’t been informed. And most damaging of all, they think their thoughts won’t make a difference because they were never told otherwise.
Young people need to be empowered and educated about voting. Our schools have a huge responsibility in raising the next generation of Americans, and from this responsibility emerges an obligation to give them the tools they need to not only be successful themselves, but also to allow them to ensure that the society they live in prospers. To do this, they should begin to educate more students about voting and government. Not just one class in high school, but consistently, from a young age. This doesn’t mean schools should try to influence students’ political beliefs (or even mention any political ideas), just that they should be encouraged to be aware of what is happening. They should be taught about how our government works, and shown that they are the only ones who can make change happen. And finally, they should be educated on when and how to register, and on where their nearest polling station is. Voting is a privilege that we Americans are lucky to have, and incorporating information about it into the education system is the only way to keep this democracy alive and improving in this ever-changing world.