The term “young people,” whether referring to children, teenagers or young adults, is being used less as a synonym for naivete and more often to identify an increasingly powerful and demanding political cohort in the United States electorate.
From the United Nations chambers in New York City to City Council chambers across the country, young people of all categories are demanding their voices be heard on existential issues like climate change and gun violence. Many students, activists, and a handful of politicians have decided young people deserve a voice in the decision-making process. They’re fighting for the right to vote.
Seen But Not Heard
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made headlines in February of this year when she dismissed a group of young climate activists who came to her office, lecturing them about why the Green New Deal bill they came to support would never pass the Senate.
“And you can take that back to whoever sent you here and tell them,” Sen. Feinstein told the assembled grade school-aged activists.
There is a crucial difference between these young activists and those whose issues Feinstein actually supports. The latter are usually adult voters, or someone who represents them.
There are still opportunities for young people to take action besides voting. Teenage volunteers can volunteer for campaigns, and politicians try and tap into the energy and enthusiasm of young people, voters or not. But there is often a bias towards the status quo, toward how “the game is played.” This year, in the wake of new and growing movements driven largely by young people, there is support for a new strategy: changing the rules of the game.
Oregon made national news in February when Oregon Senator Shemia Fagan (D-Portland) introduced an amendment to the Oregon Constitution which would lower the voting age to 16 for statewide elections.
“Why can I drive like an adult, pay taxes like an adult, have an abortion like an adult, be charged and sentenced like an adult, but I can’t vote like an adult?” asked Christine Bynum, a student at La Salle High School, speaking in support of Sen. Fagan’s amendment.
Republicans at the state and national level have made it clear that they consider any attempt to expand the voter rolls to be a partisan power grab. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to a bill which would have made Election Day a national holiday as “The Democratic Politician Protection Act”.
Oregon Republicans seem to feel the same way.
“[They] are too young to enlist in the military, too young to own firearms, too young to own property, too young to enter into legal contracts, and too young to get married. But they are old enough to vote?” said Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. (R-Grants Pass), “This is nothing more than an attempt to expand the voter rolls to sway elections,” he said.
The Next Generation
The Advocate reached out to Corvallis high schools to find young activists in our own community. We were put in touch with Bianca Curtin, a freshman at Crescent Valley High School (CVHS) and co-President of the school’s Political Activism club.
We sat down at New Morning Bakery recently to speak about the decision to get involved in politics despite not being able to vote. Curtin is all too familiar with this question. She is a few years away from the current voting age, but she is also an immigrant.
“I moved to Corvallis from Australia nearly three years ago,” Curtin said, “so I definitely wasn’t involved [in politics] before then.”
“I think around eighth grade, I started paying more attention,” she continued, “After our President was elected.”
Despite being a freshman, Curtin’s engagement with the CVHS Political Activism Club caught the attention of the club’s outgoing senior presidents. They offered to make Curtin co-President and set her up to take the reins next year during the 2020 elections, which she accepted. She said she’s probably going to be looking for a co-President of her own when the time comes. Until then, she and the club are busy providing fellow students with tools and information about what they can do.
“For the past two [weeks], we’ve been taking a cart around the school to raise awareness about gun violence,” she said, “We have petitions [and] voter registration cards we’re encouraging people to sign.”
The Political Activism Club also works on education and awareness about gun violence, women’s rights, and ethnicity and sexuality issues. Climate change is on their radar, but not their core focus, as CVHS has multiple clubs devoted exclusively to climate change issues. Curtin’s personal efforts on climate change are channeled into her work outside school as a Youth Leader with Youth Climate Action Now (YCAN).
Like many younger activists, Curtin thinks about the future in terms of decades, not years or election cycles. She believes politics could be a real career path for her, and is well aware of the obstacles she faces – the immigration process being one of many.
“It’s definitely something that I think about,” Curtin said, “Because I always sit there and wonder, since I’m younger, are people going to think that I’m not as serious and not as capable? I’m female, so are they going to think that as well? And because I’m Australian, [are they going to think] I’m actually as invested [as they are] and understand the American system?”
“Believe me,” she laughs, “I understand the American system a lot more than I understood the Australian system.”
Curtin says she and her family are on track to receive their green cards this month, a big step on the road to becoming a citizen. Once that’s in hand, she says “the clock starts ticking” until she can take the citizenship test.
Curtin wants to bring in new and consistent membership to the Political Activism Club for 2020, and bring in speakers like state Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) and possibly Governor Kate Brown to energize students. Further down the road, she’s keeping an eye on opportunities and internships, including in Washington D.C.
In an episode of a now-old television show called The West Wing, set inside a fictional White House, the senior advisers are scheduled to meet with small interest groups who usually don’t receive meetings with the White House. One of these is a “youth lobbying group” who wants to abolish the minimum voting age, and to amend the Constitution to prevent discrimination on the basis of age, as with gender and race. The senior adviser begins by mistaking the group’s name.
“You’re the Junior Leaders-,” the adviser begins.
“Future Leaders for Democracy,” a young student quickly corrects him.
Over the course of the episode, the adviser and the student sit together in the Roosevelt Room and lay out the core arguments for and against further lowering the voting age. This episode is almost the same age as Bianca Curtin, and the same points of contention discussed by these characters in 2005 are the same as those argued today.
Doesn’t every society separate children and adults in some meaningful way, like we do with the voting age? Yes, but in 1971 we lowered the voting age, through the 26th Amendment, from 21 to 18. This shows that line of adulthood, at least in terms of voting, is negotiable.
Don’t we still require people to be 18 years old to join the military or own firearms? Yes, but we also still treat and sentence many minors as adults in criminal cases before they’ve ever had a say about how the system works.
A crime can be committed in ignorance, while voting requires some level of reasoning – aren’t the votes of young people susceptible to coercion or manipulation? Well, adults don’t have to prove any level of reasoning to vote, and in fact intelligence tests and assertions that certain people don’t have the mental capacity to vote rationally are a few of the many arguments historically used to exclude women and people of color from the vote.
These two young television characters are saying the same thing that their real-life counterparts are speaking about today. Like The Sunrise Movement, they want to vote to protect the air and water they’ll be breathing and drinking for decades after today’s leaders are gone. Like the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and all the other survivors of school shootings, they want to vote to improve the safety and quality of the schools they are required to attend. They want young people to have access to some sense of control over their lives, not begin adulthood feeling powerless.
“It isn’t only power that corrupts,” says one student, “Weakness corrupts. It makes kids grow up cynical.”
The Age Gap
Republicans’ visceral opposition to expanding suffrage to young people may be a reaction to the results of the 2018 midterm elections. According to Pew Research Center, 67 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Democrats, opposed to only 32 percent for Republicans. According to a study by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 31 percent of eligible voters 18 to 29 voted in 2018, up more than 10 percent over the 2014 midterms.
This has led to a spate of worried articles in conservative publications about what these numbers mean for the 2020 elections. However, University of California Irvine professor of political science Martin Wattenberg wrote in February of this year that even though youth turnout historically increased, turnout was much higher than average across all age groups, including older voters.
In Georgia, for example, turnout of voters aged 18 to 29 rose from about 12 percent in 2014 to over 30 percent in 2018, but turnout of voters 65 and older also increased from around 55 percent to 66.5 percent over the same period. Wattenberg calls this the “age gap”. Using data from Georgia, Iowa, and Delaware, he calculates the 2018 gap was 41.3 percent, compared to 42.6 percent in 2006. Wattenberg says while the size of the gap is relatively unchanged, young voters closing this gap could have significant electoral results.
“If…young people had gone to the polls at the same rate as older people in Georgia,” Wattenberg writes, “the proportion voting for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams would have increased from 48.2 percent to 50.7 percent – and she would be governor, not Republican Brian Kemp.”
Eyes on the Horizon
Even amid the larger national conversation about disenfranchisement, some politicians have taken notice of rapidly growing, youth-driven movements and are bringing their cause into the media and the mainstream.
In early March, freshman U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced a bill in Congress to lower the voting age to 16 for all federal elections starting in 2020, noting the actions of The Sunrise Movement and the March for Our Lives rally last year inspired her to do so. However, a vote showed even the Democratic caucus was divided on the idea, splitting them 125-108.
In late April, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) voiced some mild support for lowering the voting age, saying high schoolers should be able to vote after they’ve taken a civics class, which he specified as being 17 years old in Oregon.
Presidential candidate Andrew Yang also announced his support for lowering the voting age to 16. His website’s policy page describes the unfairness in the taxing teenage workers without allowing them to vote, and notes that building civic habits like voting earlier leads to higher turnout and more consistent voting behavior.
It’s unlikely we’ll see a change in time for 16-year-olds to vote in the 2020 elections. However, many of these young people are setting their sights a bit farther than that. They are aware that they are, in more than one sense, challenging the whole world. And to them, those are the stakes as well – the whole world. They want the chance to speak up for themselves, to have a voice in the debate over whether they will see their kids grow up in a world that is cleaner, and safer – and one in which their voices can be heard.
By Ian MacRonald