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Voting Age

by on April 9, 2020

Voting Age

by Marco M. Pardi

When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against themselves. It’s a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks about it.” John Kenneth Galbraith. The Age of Uncertainty 1977

One day, you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt…your dreams forgotten, the horrors you faced. Your bones will turn to sand. And upon that sand, a new god will walk. One that will never die. Because this world doesn’t belong to you, or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who is yet to come.

Dolores, in ‘Westworld’

All pertinent comments are welcome and will receive a response.

In recent months, perhaps as part of the support for the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang, we’ve seen increasing calls for lowering the voting age in the Untied States. It is currently at 18 years of age, lowered from a long standing 21 years in 1971. One of the greatest influences on that lowering was the Vietnam war, a war into which 18 year olds were sent to slaughter before ever gaining a say in the policy decisions which would send them there or keep them home.

I reached 18 in the Fall of 1960. At that time U.S. involvement in Vietnam, started by Eisenhower and continued by Kennedy, was relatively minimal and Kennedy was working to end military involvement altogether. Nonetheless, the military Draft was in effect, requiring all males who could pass a very basic physical examination to serve two years in the Army. Some short reserve time may have been added on but I did not look twice at the two years of marching in circles in the Army, choosing for personal reasons a six year commitment to a particular specialty in the Air Force instead. So, I turned 21 and beyond in uniform and a different form of government service while also gaining my higher education. By my 21st birthday I had lived on three continents, interacted with a wide variety of people in various levels and positions, and completed several college courses. I felt I was better prepared for the 1964 Presidential elections than I would have been had I stayed home. Yet, having spent these years immersed in the principles of rigidly compartmentalized information – right and need to know – I had doubts about the grounds on which I based my decision. How could I be sure Barry Goldwater would or would not use nuclear weapons to stem the flow of support from North Vietnam to the insurgents in South Vietnam? How could I have known Lyndon Johnson would accelerate troop deployment into what grew to be a half million personnel at any one time in that theater? What companies stood to reap immense profits from an expanded war? What would happen to the Civil Rights movement if Johnson lost? These, and similar questions were among those I considered in making my decision.

Looking around the world today we see an array of countries having, or professing, some form of democracy. About as varied as the forms, the voting ages vary; the range of beginning eligibility runs from 15 years to 25 years. In each case the presumption is that age is a reliable marker of maturity. Of course, we know there are exceptions on both ends of the scale. Some are “wise beyond their years” and others seem unable to get there no matter how we extend the time. In recent years we have seen advances in neuroscience and developmental psychology which suggest maturity, especially as reflected in decision making, is more delayed than we had thought. But culture has always been both the safety net and the fertile ground for maturation; it has supported those who could not grow and nourished those who could. Yet, has culture – specifically in the U.S., become so rich and diversified as to lose its power to focus on critically important issues when they arise? Are we raising a generation so over enriched, or so distracted, as to be unable to wisely choose?

For example, the Jeffersonian principle of separation of church and state was a radical turning point in human history. Until then there was no question of such a separation simply because no one conceived of a daily life not enveloped in what could be called religious principles. People didn’t so much see themselves as acting religiously as they saw themselves as acting correctly, especially for their age group. Thus, the developmental stages of children normally included some marker, or rite of passage signaling the change from childhood to adulthood. In the West the “People of the Book”, Jews, Christians and Muslims ritually marked this transition with Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, and Baaligh (maturity). These all have in common: Puberty, 12 – 15 years old. For the Japanese, however, adulthood is recognized at age 20 with the celebration of Seijin Shiki. Are the Japanese slower to mature? Certainly not.

Yes, 21 is still the “legal age” in the U.S. for certain transactions and permissions but, beyond being three (a magic number in the West) times seven (the traditional Age of Reason in the West) what is so magically special about 21? Some of us remember 21 with a shudder.

Anyone who is even marginally aware of the world around him must know that our world is increasing in risk at exponential rates. Our nuclear technology can wipe us off the Earth in a flash. Our fossil fuel technology can stupid us off the Earth in a bit longer. I think I need not reiterate what I have discussed in so many previous posts.

And so I cannot bring myself to glibly endorse some arbitrary age as meeting the wisdom to cast votes which affect the future of my daughter and grandchildren. But then people say in our democratic republic we elect representatives who understand the issues better than us and vote for us. Really? Has anyone reviewed the lasting impact of the “Tea Party” subsection of the Republican Party, the subsection that got its entire Party labeled “The Party of No”? Has anyone reviewed the documented quotes of Senate leader Mitch McConnell who said on several occasions after the election of Barack Obama, “Our first priority is to make this a failed Presidency!”? Failed Presidency? Is this how we voted for the betterment of the country? It seems to me age was not the issue here; wisdom was.

But how do we go about determining whether a person is wise enough to be granted the power to vote? Some States use simple tests to grant the power to drive a four wheeled deadly weapon to people at age 16. The assumption here is that passage of the test indicates the person now empowered will continue to use that power wisely. Of course, they will pay a price if they do not. But who pays the price for driver error in the voting booth? You, me, and the generations to come.

For twenty two years I taught various levels of Anthropology, Thanatology, and Critical Thinking in private and public universities, colleges, and community colleges in four widely separated States. I greatly preferred the community colleges for their wide range of student age (17 – 82) and the breadth and depth of experience and thought brought to the classroom. At a State college I also taught Anthropology classes to “Gifted Children”, junior high school students. Across the spectrum I found that my best students were Central and Eastern Europeans, including Russia and Ukraine. They were far better able to assimilate facts and to project the short term and long term consequences. Although there were exceptions, students completely educated in the U.S. tended more toward short term self interest, likely products of a two dimensional educational system.

And so, I am inclined to see an arbitrary voting age as missing the point. The world has grown infinitely more complex, and potentially dangerous, since the Founding Fathers of the U.S. wrote their fine words in the Constitution and other related documents. We can no longer afford acceptance of a vote based simply on the age and the casually apparent mental fitness of the voter. Ideally, I would like to see some form of voter qualification test, administered orally if needed. We certainly have a wealth of experts who could devise such a test.

Looking back over these last 3 ½ years, are you still comfortable putting your life and your future, and the lives and futures of your children, in the hands of just anyone of a certain age?

Your thoughts – or votes, if you prefer – will be greatly appreciated.

 

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6 Comments
  1. It doesn’t matter how informed or experienced you are if you don’t have good options to choose from. There’s more factors to this inadequate voting system. Yes, some people can think critically at a very young age (I think the question is what is the definition of ‘young’ here). However, you can only make a decision based on the information and options you have at the time regardless of age or critical thinking ability. For this reason, I think factors like propaganda, media control, and a poor education system are more important – and possibly more difficult to change than a voting age.

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  2. Thank you, E. I absolutely and completely agree with you. The American voting system has become Kabuki theater. It is no surprise so many people have lost interest.

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  3. Dana permalink

    Marco, I wonder if those who support lowering the voting age feel they might have made good voting choices at an earlier age (such as sixteen).

    Sometimes it’s challenging for me not to decide what’s best based on my personal experience and abilities. I think I would have been capable of voting at sixteen.

    Further, I would have chosen my candidates autonomously, and certainly not under the influence of parental opinion. Sadly, children and adolescents don’t always think for themselves well into adulthood and vote exactly as their parents did and still do. As you know I’ve never been one of those people.

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    • Thank you, Dana. Knowing you, I would agree you would have been an informed and conscientious voter at 16. But imagine how cumbersome it would be if everyone had to have references. And who would vet the references?

      Your comment about familial influence reminds me of what people often say when caught out using racist comments: “I was raised that way”. Too often we hear people say, My family has always been (this or that Party) as the reason why they voted as they did. The same applies to church influence or some other single issue organization.

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  4. Politics and religion were two subjects never spoken of in my childhood home, so I can safely say I would not have been influenced by my parents in making my choice of candidate at that time. I do know that they were of opposing views, and chose silence and peace over voicing opinions that would surely have clashed; my husband and I have (for the most part) done the same. I do remember my mother saying once that he couldn’t see what she was doing once the voting booth curtain (remember those?) was pulled.

    The first national election after I turned 16 was in 1972, and we all know how that one turned out. One of my greatest influences at that time was my American History teacher, a Vietnam war veteran who later went on to be a grassroots advisor to Senator Lawton Chiles; politics were definitely spoken of in his class. At that time, I would have been informed and opinionated on the issues, something I cannot honestly say about all of the elections between then and now. An ignorant vote is just that, ignorant. It’s only been in the years since moving back to FL that I have become an active participant in the election process, a fact of which I am not proud.

    It’s true that the age of majority, much like a mandatory age of retirement, is an arbitrary number. I’m not particularly in favor of lowering that number; without education and information, all that really does is widen the pool of potential voters. Unfortunately, any test devised to test such would be deeply influenced by whatever political party was in power at the time of its creation. Again, if things keep going the way they seem to be headed, all this may become a moot point.

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    • Thank you, Rose. I think you are correct about the political influence on the test. All this makes me feel support for the hypothesis that Democracy has upper limits; when issues become too complex and too immediate decisions cannot be left to uninformed – and even incapable – masses. Despite all the We’re in this together talk, the idea that America is a cohesive society is a delusion.

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