Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Constitution Café: Should the voting age be lowered again?

August 11, 2014 by Christopher Phillips


Our original Constitution and Bill of Rights say nothing about voting age. it was left up to the states to decide who could and couldn’t vote — and in most cases, only white male tax-paying property owners had that right.

University_at_Buffalo_voting_booth-450x300It wasn’t until the 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868, that a voting age was spelled out, giving suffrage to all male citizens over age 21, regardless of race. The 19th Amendment prohibits anyone from being denied the right to vote on the basis of one's sex. The 26th Amendment, ratified on July 1, 1971, lowered the age to 18 – the ratification effort driven principally by the fact that many of those being drafted to serve in Vietnam did not have the right to vote.

But why age 18? What is it about that age that makes one at the ripest of ages to vote? Are those age 18 and above more informed on the issues, more enlightened about the candidates vying for elective office? Or can our Internet-savvy children and youth at times be more in the know than citizens of more advanced years?

The youngest voting ages are age 16, in Austria, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua. And in Indonesia, East Timor, Sudan and Seychelles, 17-year-olds are afforded the right. In 2004, John Vasconcellos, a Congressman from California, proposed a constitutional amendment called Training Wheels for Citizenship that would give 14-year-olds a quarter vote, 16-year-olds half a vote, and 17-year-olds a full vote. His proposed amendment never went anywhere. In Germany, where the voting age in most cases is age 18, there was for a while a burgeoning yet ultimately failed effort to give voting rights to babies, toddlers, children, youth. Most leading efforts to lower the voting age maintain that a vast and potentially powerful bloc of voters is denied the opportunity to have their political interests duly considered.

The noted British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, upon reading our Declaration of Independence and coming across the phrase “all men are created equal,” took ‘all mean’ to include ‘all children’ - and so he would have presumed that they had the right to vote. Bentham took great umbrage to it. "‘All men,’" he writes, "‘are created equal.’ This surely is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.”

Yet in the Founding era of the United States, some children and youth fought, and some were injured or died, in the Revolutionary war; they often served as foot soldiers, fighting side by side with their adult counterparts. In instances, they were sent to serve in the military rather than their older siblings or parents. Should this have given them the right to vote, since they made the same sacrifices, or greater sacrifices in some cases?

What say you? If you had your druthers, at what age would our Constitution give an American citizen the right to vote? And why? Tell us below in our comments area.


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