The 2016 presidential campaign has been long on despair and short on anything resembling insight. But the election season has, almost despite itself, illuminated one surprising and useful truth: young people, namely those much-despised millenials, should be allowed to vote. Though neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has spent a moment discussing the subject, their struggle for the presidency has shown clearly that we need to lower the voting age.
The case for lowering the voting age began in the primaries. When folks are skeptical of youth voting, they often argue that young people would just vote the way their parents do; their votes would essentially be wasted. But the Democratic primary showed dramatically that young people don’t vote the same way as their parents’—at least not any more.
While Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in overall votes, beating him by a decisive 3.7 million votes, it was a different story among voters under the age of 30. In June, toward the end of the election, the Washington Post reported that Sanders not only crushed Clinton among voters 30 years old and younger, he actually had more “under 30” voters than Trump and Clinton combined. Sanders won two million votes to Trump and Clinton’s combined total of some 1.6 million.
Sanders’s strength with young voters was particularly noticeable with black voters. Clinton crushed Sanders among older African-American voters, winning 70 percent of voters 30 to 44 years old and 85 perfect of voters 45 to 59 years old. Clinton won a devastating 89 percent of black voters over the age of 65. But Sanders edged her out 52 percent to 47% with black voters under 29 years old. Young black voters had a distinct, and distinctly different, vision of their interests and the good of the country.
Age has been a major factor in determining voting preferences in the general election campaign too. Millenials are virulently opposed to Donald Trump. Seventy-five percent of them view him unfavorably. They’re not very fond of Hillary Clinton, either; at one point, polls have shown her holding around 45 percent of the millennial vote to Trump’s 25 percent or so, with the remainder splitting between Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green party candidate Jill Stein.
Young voters interest in third party candidates has led a number of writers to blame them for Trump’s rise. The young, critics say, are irresponsible and flighty; they’re unwilling to address the serious task of democracy by settling for the lesser of two tedious old evils.
The argument that young people are less qualified to vote than their Trump-embracing parents and grandparents is ludicrous.
But if the young are irresponsible for indirectly aiding Trump, what about the old, who are directly voting for him? His strongest demographic has consistently comprised older white voters—particularly those over the age of 65. If support for Trump was disqualifying, then the demographic that should be disenfranchised is the elderly, not young people.
The main argument against lowering the voting age is that the young are incapable. But Trump is the least qualified candidate for president in recent memory, and young people seem to have figured that out. The argument that young people are somehow less prepared or less qualified to vote than their Trump-embracing parents and grandparents is ludicrous.
Lowering the voting age might also help reduce the widespread feelings of alienation from the political process. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein points out, 18 is a terrible age at which to start voting. That’s because many 18 year olds are in college and don’t feel a strong connection to their old home or their new college town. Starting voting at 18 years old when people are between residences reduces the chances that they will cast their first votes and the likelihood that they will votes in later years because voting is a habitual. It’s been proven that if you vote in one election, you’re more likely to vote in future ones.
Lowering the voting age to sixteen could easily solve this problem; young people would be able to vote while they were in high school and still anchored to their hometowns. If it were up to me, I might lower the age even more; my 12-year-old son has been following the election avidly and can explain it at length (thanks in part to John Oliver). My son would love to vote—and why shouldn’t he? Is he less informed than those elderly Trump voters? Doesn’t he deserve a say in how the country, which he’ll live in for the next seventy years, should be run?
Trump’s campaign is based on the idea that some Americans are more American—and thus more worthy of citizenship rights—than others. He made his entry into national politics by questioning whether our first black president was born in this country. He went on in the primaries to question Ted Cruz’s citizenship. His big political issue is whipping up hatred of immigrants and pandering to the fear that someday, many more non-white people may be citizens and able to vote.
The handwringing about how millennials are destroying us is based on a similarly restrictive view of democracy. Some people are too different, too irresponsible, too un-American to deserve full citizenship rights, the logic goes.
But the real un-American act is to deny people the vote while still taxing and governing them. This campaign has shown that young people have particular opinions, and that those opinions are as responsible and conscious as those of their elders. Young voters are a reminder that the best protection of democracy, equality and freedom is the franchise.