Every day, I wake up in a city where I am not heard nor represented. As a 15-year-old White Station High School student who also works, I spend 35 hours a week in an public education system my income taxes help support, yet I have no say in what happens to my money or me. If youths could vote, we’d have more say-so over policies that affect our lives.
Youths are much more serious and responsible than dominant narratives give us credit for. As a fellow at Memphis Youth Union (MemYU), I’m working other youth community organizers to advocate for voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds in statewide elections.
Allowing high school students to vote isn’t a radical notion: Three cities in Maryland already allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. Myriad campaigns have developed around the nation, including California, Massachusetts and Illinois, as well as Washington D.C., according to Vote16USA. Globally, Norway and Austria have allowed voters as young as 16.
Voting rights have been an integral part of our nation’s history in defining the rights of different identities. When our nation was founded, only a small percentage of its residents could vote: rich, land-owning white males, as they were believed to be the only well-educated citizens. When George Washington was elected as our first president, only 6 percent of the population was qualified to vote, according to the Northern California Citizenship Project.
Suffrage, the right to vote, has grown over the past several hundred years through amendments such as the 15th (universal male suffrage for citizens regardless of race) and the 19th (women’s suffrage for citizens). The national voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971 after decades of debate over the fact young people who could fight — and die — in wars but not vote.
In making the case for lowering the voting age to 18, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) said: “I believe the time has come to lower the voting age in the United States, and thereby to bring American youth into the mainstream of our political process. To me, this is the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation if we are to succeed in bringing our youth into full and lasting participation in our institutions of democratic government.”
Despite these hard-won gains, voter suppression efforts continue to deny these basic human rights to citizens, whether it is due to race, sex, age or class.
Meanwhile, the fact remains that teens are taxed, yet we have no voice in how our money is spent within our own communities. At MemYU, we chose age 16 because it is the standard age in our nation to be eligible to drive and hold a job, acts of incredible responsibility. Research by Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins indicates the neurological differences between 16- and 18-year-olds are irrelevant when referencing the ability to civically participate and make educational decisions.
They write: “Adolescents in this age range are developmentally ready to vote. This pattern is in accord with research on adolescents’ reasoning and cognitive abilities, which suggests that development in these areas plateaus at age 16.”
Many students who are 18 or older struggle with voter registration because regulations requiring them to vote for the first time in person at a time when they’re often moving out of state for college, for example. Extending these rights to 16- and 17-year-olds makes going to the polls more habitual throughout adulthood than when people begin voting at 18.
“Voting is habit forming,” Peter Levine, a Tufts University professor of citizenship and public affairs, told Governing. “If you voted in a past election, you tend to vote again.”
Likewise, those who don’t vote the first chance they get establish nonvoting as a habit, too.
This movement is a piece of a much larger national and international movement taking place to end the ongoing disenfranchisement of youth. Not only are we actively working to change the laws to include youth voting, we are striving to change the culture and reputation youth are given in our community. We hope to prove youth are knowledgeable, civically engaged, and active in participating in a better future for our city and state. With MemYU’s partnerships with national organizations aligned with our same goals like the National Youth Rights Association and Vote16USA, we are aim to have our bill on the ballot in November.
Youth are not the future but the present, and our voices deserve to be heard and included in decisions that directly affect our livelihood and well-being. If you are interested in supporting our campaign, please visit thememphisyouth.org and sign our petition.
Brentley Sandlin is a fellow at Memphis Youth Union.
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