Thursday, April 8, 2004

Should voting age fall to 16?

Several states ponder measure

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - High school junior Lindsay Holbrook is brokenhearted.

Not over a boy - but over the fact that, at 17, she will not be allowed to vote for president this November. And the Walled Lake, Mich., teen aims to do something about that.

Holbrook is part of a movement to lower the voting age.

It's an idea several states - as well as foreign countries - are considering as politicians desperately search for ways to boost dismal and sinking turnout among young adults.

"I am very, very interested in politics in general," said Lindsay, a John Kerry supporter who turns 18 in December. "It just breaks my heart - I'm just going to miss the cutoff."

It sounds counterintuitive: Young adults don't vote, so lower the voting age.

But advocates say 18 is the worst time to start voting because that's when teenagers' lives are in turmoil - moving away to college, stressing out over graduation, getting a job, joining the armed forces.

And studies show voting is a habit that has to start early. If people don't start out as voters, they're less likely to ever vote. Some researchers fear that as this generation of nonvoters ages, they will stay that way, causing a dangerous dive in voter turnout as baby boomers and older generations die out. In the 2000 election, senior citizens voted at about twice the rate of 18- to 24-year-olds.

"As I was visiting schools, as I talked to classes, I asked them what kind of things would make a difference," said Minnesota state Sen. Steve Kelley, a Democrat from Hopkins, Minn. "Among the ideas tossed out were having 17-year-olds be able to vote."

Kelley's bill to allow just that has passed a committee.

Activists are pushing to go further: They want 16-year-olds to be able to vote. At that age most teenagers can work, pay taxes, drive and be charged as adults for crimes - even be sentenced to death - said Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association.

In most states, 16-year-olds can get a driver's license, though usually with restrictions. And while almost every state requires that a couple be 18 to marry on their own, most states let 16- and 17-year-olds wed if they have their parents' consent. In New Hampshire, girls as young as 13 can marry, as long as they have permission from their parents.

"What kind of twisted message do we send when we describe a murderer as a 'mature, responsible adult' and describe a 14- or 16-year-old student looking to vote as a 'stupid little kid.' This is hypocritical and wrong," said Koroknay-Palicz, 22.

A federal constitutional amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. States are allowed to set their ages lower, but not higher.

In 2002, Cambridge, Mass., city leaders voted to lower the local voting age to 17. But the state legislature, which has the final say, has not approved the change.

Maine is considering letting 17-year-olds vote in primaries, as long as they turn 18 by the general election, something several other states already allow. In Florida, advocates hope to have an initiative on this fall's ballot lowering the voting age to 16. Proposals also have been introduced in Texas and Hawaii.

California has the most radical proposal: a constitutional amendment that would give 16-year-olds a half vote and 14-year-olds a quarter vote in state elections beginning in 2006.

Britain is considering lowering its voting age to 16, a proposal that picked up the backing of the ruling Labor Party. And Canada's chief elections officer in March suggested doing the same thing.

In those nations, as in the United States, the push for a lower voting age is driven by the falling rates at which 18- to 25-year-olds vote. Governments are desperate to try to bring young people back into the civic fold, to make them feel they have a stake in their countries.

Since the national voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, the voting rate among 18- to 24-year-olds has dropped fairly steadily. In the 2000 election, 42 percent of young adults voted, compared with 70 percent of those older than 25.

This year will see unprecedented efforts to get young adults interested in voting in the November election. Everyone from professional wrestlers to TV producers to MTV has some kind of youth voting initiative.

None of the efforts to lower the voting age will be in force in time for this fall's presidential election - much to the dismay of Caroline DuWors, 16, a junior at Milford High School.

"I've formed my opinions on the candidates and stayed up with their campaigns as much as possible," Caroline said. "I think a common misconception among adults is that all teenagers would rather sleep or go shopping than think about politics."

Elections experts are divided.

"I think it's a dumb idea," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

The voting age was set at 18 because that's the age at which people could be drafted and die for their country. They don't have enough life experience or history and don't know the issues in enough detail, he said.

"There are other ways to learn politics," he said, such as volunteering on a campaign or working as a poll volunteer on Election Day.

Kay Stimson, director of the New Millennium Young Voters Project at the National Association of Secretaries of State, said she was glad lowering the voting age is getting more attention than it has since 1971.

"Any movement that gets young people involved in the electoral process is definitely a positive one," she said.

Getting teenagers in the habit of voting will make them lifetime voters, advocates say. And school provides the perfect place to train future voters, both in civics and the basic logistics of voting. A Yale University study last year found that students shown how to operate a voting machine were more than twice as likely to vote as students who weren't shown.

By lowering the voting age to 16, "you might be able to make voting part of a civics education class," said Mark Lopez, research director at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Lowering the voting age might have little effect on the presidential race. Polls have shown young voters about as split as their elders. If they differ at all, they tend to be more libertarian - more tolerant of gay marriage, for example, and more supportive of privatizing Social Security.

After all, most teenagers have a leave-me-alone attitude that could be described politically as libertarian, said James Gimpel, an expert on young voters at the University of Maryland.

Gimpel, who has forecast the possible crash in voter turnout, said he was intrigued with the idea of lowering the voting age but not sure of its impact. People who were going to be likely voters anyway might just start earlier.

"I suspect that the offspring of active parents would be inclined to pretty much follow their parental preferences," he said. "Most of these kids would be knock-offs of their parents."

The effect might be huge in areas where voters set school budgets or tax rates.

After all, Caroline DuWors said, if a recent tax referendum hadn't passed in May 2003, her peers would have felt it the most. She and her fellow students pushed adults to vote yes but having their own vote would have helped even more.

"If the levy didn't pass, class sizes would increase, numerous clubs would have been cut, and sports fees would have doubled," she said.

Most of the attempts to lower the voting age probably are doomed, at least in the short term, said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has no stand on the issue. But in the long run, it may happen. After all, it took decades to get the right to vote for nonwhites, women and then 18-year-olds.

"It's one of those things states are going to want to think about," he said.

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