The events since the Parkland shooting have convinced me that we need to change the Constitution to eliminate an ill-considered Amendment that has done more harm than good. We need to repeal the 26th Amendment and raise the voting age back to 21.
That’s the opposite of what a lot of people are advocating. Seeing Parkland students go on television and agitate for gun control has a lot of people on the left excited at the prospect of lowering the voting age to 16. That is, they’re excited about the small subset of Parkland students who have been paraded in front of television cameras by opportunistic talk-show hosts—not the ones who dropped out of scripted “town halls” when they refused to let CNN tell them what they could say.
But what I’ve seen from the teenagers getting the most television coverage has confirmed why their poorly considered political views should not have binding power over anyone, and why they should not be given any kind of authority on matters of national importance.
Consider the case of David Hogg, the one you’ve probably seen on TV the most. A few days ago he was responding to the unraveling of the Parkland narrative—the revelation that armed Sheriff’s deputies had arrived at the shooting while it was in progress but made no attempt to stop the killer—by excusing the deputy, asking “Who wants to go down the barrel of an AR-15?” (Never mind that the deputy had no way of knowing what weapon was being used.) But just a few days later, Hogg was on television (again) blaming the deputy’s inaction on…Florida Governor Rick Scott.
These elected officials are the boss of these sheriff personnel and just like the president is the boss of the FBI, Governor Rick Scott is essentially the boss of Scott Israel, the sheriff, and as such he should be held accountable. He can’t just blame this on the bureaucracy and expect to get re-elected.
Aside from the blatant contradiction to Hogg’s earlier views, the main thing you should notice about this statement is that it is factually wrong. Rick Scott is not the “boss” of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel any more than Governor Scott is the “boss” of the state’s mayors or legislators. The sheriff is an independently elected position. That’s a widespread feature of our Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement, which today’s young people might know if they weren’t too busy being taught to be shocked and offended by the phrase “Anglo-American.” Moreover, just a few years back, Sheriff Israel spent a lot of money campaigning for his position and subsequently put a bunch of his campaign officials on the public payroll. This was all reported widely in the local newspapers, which are read by politically engaged local voters—but are not, as a general rule, read by high-school students.
Don’t try to make sense out of any of this. Just notice what it accomplishes: it once again lets Sheriff Israel skip out on responsibility for the policies and training of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office—and shifts the blame onto a Republican politician, which better serves the preferred political narrative.
You can criticize David Hogg for being uninformed and inconsistent, for being a publicity hound, or for being easily manipulated by partisan activists. But I would prefer just to say that he is 17 years old. Of course he’s saying dumb things in a smugly self-assured way, because that’s what 17-year-olds do. His knowledge is incomplete and his judgment is under-developed. I’d like to think I might have been a little better educated and more serious in my thinking at that age—but I’m also very glad that I grew up at a time when young people left very few searchable records of their innermost thoughts. One of the privileges of youth is the freedom to say dumb things in obscurity and, if you are fortunate, not to be exposed to widespread public scrutiny before your mind and character have had the opportunity to mature.
Which brings us back to the prospect of letting these young people vote. The Constitution did not originally set any rule for the voting age, which was left to individual states. The 14th Amendment, in seeking to protect the right to vote, guaranteed it explicitly for citizens 21 and older, though some states and localities chose to set a lower age. It was not until the 26th Amendment in 1971 that states were required to set a voting age of 18.
The supposed impetus for this was the argument that if 18-year-olds could be drafted to fight in Vietnam, they should be able to vote. But US involvement in that war was already winding down. The draft did not last much longer, and an all-volunteer military has long since proven its merits. The real motive for the amendment was the irresistible temptation to gerrymander the electorate, enlarging it to include a huge cohort of politically mobilized and left-leaning young people to swing the vote toward the Democrats. (The immediate result, however, was that these young voters stampeded the Democratic Party into nominating George McGovern, who went down to a crushing defeat in the presidential election of 1972.) To this day, the most reliable left-leaning cohort of the electorate is the 18- to 24-year-olds. The push to let 16-year-olds vote is a transparent attempt to continue this gerrymandering.
The reason the left wants these young voters is the very same reason they should not be permitted: they are easily influenced and indoctrinated. By necessity, and particularly in our current educational system, students tend to learn things in theory—not just from books, but from carefully selected and sanitized textbooks—rather than from deep research or personal experience. This gives the people who dish out that theory a disproportionate influence. In effect, the call to let 16-year-olds vote is a call to amplify the votes of the teachers’ unions. If you think political indoctrination in the schools is bad now, wait until it has the direct power to tip election results.
What happens to young people as they get older, as they move toward 21 and beyond, is not necessarily that they gain more knowledge of history or economics or political philosophy, but that they start to gain first-hand experience of living independently. They see more politicians come and go, get a little more perspective, have a few run-ins with actual used-car salesmen and perhaps gain a better ability to spot a con artist. They have more opportunity to come out from the under the tutelage of parents and teachers and think for themselves.
Above all, they gain life experience in a few particular areas that most never had to encounter before age 18: the world of work, making a living, managing a household, raising kids, meeting a budget, even starting a business. Figures vary, but the average person takes a first full-time job at around 19, followed (but not quickly enough) by moving out of mom and dad’s house; the average woman has her first child at about 26, followed (but not quickly enough) by getting married. There are no good figures on the average age at which young people stop frittering away money on avocado toast, but the first house purchase waits until about 33, which would be the average age for the ability to vote if we stuck to the old rule that limited the franchise to property owners. The purpose of that rule was to make sure voters had more of a direct personal stake in the policies they were voting for. The same thing is mostly accomplished with a higher voting age. All of these milestones and life experiences materially change your attitudes toward taxes, regulation, education, law enforcement, morality, and personal responsibility in a way that hasn’t happened yet for 16-year-old kids who often enough don’t yet take responsibility for cleaning their own rooms. These children are much more likely to look at politics in a way that is flippant, superficial, and motivated more by a desire to impress their peers than by considered thinking.
That’s not to say that adults aren’t swayed by partisanship and flim-flam and don’t act in reckless and ill-informed ways when they vote. Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst system of government except for all the others. That’s why we don’t actually have a pure democracy but a constitutional republic that is designed to dampen the temporary passions of the public and prevent them from giving up their essential rights just because they’re carried away by the demagoguery of a heated moment. In this case, that’s why we have a Bill of Rights that includes a Second Amendment.
Dampening political passions and reducing the influence of demagogues is a good reason to keep children away from the ballot box. No, I don’t expect us to go back to a voting age of 21, if only because that would make it harder for one political party to win elections, and they know it. But at the very least those of us who are responsible adults can act like it and hold the line at 18.