Voices & Choices

Valley Patriot enters "Least Informed Editorial" contest in opposing suffrage rights

Valley Patriot enters
FairVote supports local governments acting to extend voting rights to citizens when they turn 16. A 16-year-old  voting age is now the national law in a growing number of nations, including Argentina, Austria, and Brazil, and is now a big issue in nations like Ireland (where a citizens assembly recommended it) and the United Kingdom (where three of the four parties with the most seats in parliament support it).

My home city of Takoma Park (MD) extended voting rights to 16-year-olds two years ago as part of a broader debate about how to stand up for the right to vote, and in the two elections with the system, more 16- and 17-year-old voted than all 18-to-29-year-olds combined -- a sad commentary on low rates of participation  for our young people, but a good indicator that 16-year-olds are often more engaged with their local community than when they are older and often displaced from their long-time home. If one can  establish a practice of participation  in government before leaving one's childhood  home, studies show that is more likely you will be a voter throughout your life.

Our neighboring city of Hyattsville has now moved to 16-year-old voting with little controversy, and I expect more communities to take action in the years  ahead. And while FairVote primarily focuses on the heavy lift of the four key reforms in its Reform 2020 agenda, I have little doubt that the arc of the universe will bend toward this becoming an international and national norm.

This brings us to the Valley Patriot, as Massachusetts publication that this week issued an editorial strongly opposing North Andover from extending voting rights to 16-year-olds. Echoing the "Know Nothing" movement that was strong in Massachusetts in the 1840's, the editorial trots out various myths that evidence easily refutes, including:

* Suffrage rights must be tied to "responsibilities": Citizens start earning significant new rights and responsibilities by the time they are 16, including paying income taxes, being able  to marry and much more. The editorial lists other rights that people have only upon turning 18. But if one accepts the right to vote as fundamental, then there is no such direct connection. Many adults with voting rights do not have credit cards, pay property taxes nor serve in the military. The editorial writers essentially are hearkening back to long-discredited notions that suffrage should be tied to property ownership -- an 18th century majority view among  Massachusetts legislators, to be sure, but not a 21st century one.

* 16-year-olds cannot express independent judgment: Featured in a cartoon accompanying the editorial, this notion has been definitively debunked through research of 16-year-old voters, such a major study in Scotland after 16-year-olds were allowed to vote in the independence referendum last year - -a study that helped the Scottish government to now move to extending voting rights to 16-year-olds in all elections.

* Suffrage is connected to military service: It is true that the 1971 passage of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowering the voting age to 18 was tied closely to the fact that the median age of Americans being killed  or wounded in Vietnam was 19. But if service in combat was a precondition for voting, then women would have been denied suffrage until only  recently -- which, indeed, was one of the arguments against women's suffrage that closely track what has been said about a 16-year-old voting age. But even if one accepts this false standard, it should given the editorial writers pause that if one  turns 18 right after a presidential election, then you can't vote for president until nearly 22 -- years after potentially  serving in the military. Indeed, 17-year-olds are able to enter the military today.

But  when  it comes to suffrage rights, Americans are in fact not quick to act on principle. Congress sits on its  hands instead of passing legislation to provide voting rights in congressional elections to more than 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C. Nearly six million American citizens of voting age cannot vote due to the fact that some states deny voting rights to people with felony convictions in contradiction to international norms. It took generations for  men to extend voting rights to women, for whites to extend voting rights to African Americans and yes, for those 21 and up to extend voting rights to 18-year-olds (with Illinois voters soundly rejecting that change in a  1970 referendum, for example, just months before enactment of the 26th amendment).

We'll see what North Andover voters do. The majority may well reject inclusion, but if they do so, I firmly believe they are on the wrong side of history -- as most certainly is the misnamed Valley Patriot.

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