Ruminations, February 24, 2013
Should it continue to be legal for 18-year olds to vote? Was the 26th Amendment a mistake?
In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S, Constitution allowing 18 year-olds to vote went into effect. Was this a mistake?
Let’s not confuse the 26th Amendment with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 nor with the 14th Amendment which conferred the right to vote to all male citizens over the age of 21. The 26th Amendment states, in its entirety:
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
At the time the Amendment was enacted, there was considerable ant-Vietnam War sentiment in the country and a large number of 18-year-olds did not want to serve in the armed services because of fear, inconvenience or moral opposition to the war. (Let’s not forget that when President Kennedy, by executive order in 1963, exempted married men from the draft, there was a flurry of young men expediting marriage so that they could avoid military service. At that time, most people didn’t know where Vietnam was and there were only about 1,000 U.S. troops stationed there. So the objection was not to the war in Vietnam but primarily to the inconvenience of serving in the armed services.) (It’s an interesting aside that President Harry Truman, some years before, had expressed his opinion that the voting age should be raised to age 25.)
In the United States, Georgia was the first state to lower the voting age to 18 (1943) and Kentucky followed in 1955. But no one else did until the 26th Amendment went into effect in 1971. Meanwhile, around the world today there are movements to reduce the voting age further. Some say, it should be 16 because 16 year-olds are effected by laws as much as 18 year-olds. You might say that the law also effects new borns so why shouldn’t they have the right to vote? There are political movements currently trying to secure voting rights for children (Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions) with voting done by parents until the child reaches a specified age.
By 1971, an argument had gained acceptance that anyone old enough to fight (in wars) was old enough to vote (for foreign policy). Few ever questioned the rationality behind the connection of having the physical stamina and ability to follow orders in a war and the maturity required to make political judgments. In his book, What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlanntes, himself a Vietnam combat veteran, makes the point that 18 to25 year olds make better soldiers because they lack the wisdom that reduces the ability of older soldiers (30-year-olds) from acting as effectively in a warrior mode.
In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gordon writes of a Temple University study of teenage vs. adult drivers, which found their risk taking and judgment comparable – when they drove alone. However, when teenagers had friends in the car with them, they drove more recklessly and had more accidents. Psychologist Laurence Steinberg concluded that to impress their friends, the teens “do a lot of stupid things” that adults do not. And these are the people whom we should encourage to vote?
We have learned a lot in the years since 1971. At the time when the 26th Amendment passed, the consensus opinion was that at age 18 the human brain was as mature as it was going to get. But since that time, using magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques, neuroscience has established that the human brain does not achieve full maturity until about 25 years of age (A UCLA study cited the ages 23 to 30 for human brain maturation. A National Institute of Health study said that brain maturation does not occur until after age 25 and Dr Jay Giedd of the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health says that the brain doesn’t mature until the late 20s.). The part of the brain that develops last is the prefrontal cortex. This is that part of the brain that helps us deal with reasoning, planning, determining consequences and judgment.
Automobile insurers for years have been charging higher premiums for male drivers under the age of 25 because, statistically, they have more accidents. Insurers rely solely on statistics and have not sought to justify their decision on anything else. But, knowing what we do today, it would not be a stretch to say that an immature brain is a contributor to erratic driving.
We should not conclude that the only profession to which 18 to 25 year olds can aspire and excel is that of warrior. For instance, it is legend that most mathematical discoveries are developed by men younger than 25. One of the more renowned and widely published mathematicians, Évariste Galois, died in a duel at age 20. There are many professions in which those under 25 can make contributions to society but should we entrust governance of that society to individuals whose judgment is immature?
So, should we repeal the 26th Amendment or perhaps change it to prohibit those under 25 from voting? It seems that there is ample reason for doing so but yet there would be strong political opposition to such a movement. By whom? Well, obviously, those under 25, for one. And then there are the Democrats. This is not to say that Democrats have more immature judgment, but that a large part of their constituency is under age 25. According to Pew Research, in 2008, President Obama and the Democrats carried under-30 voters 66 percent to 32 percent for McCain. In 2012, Obama again prevailed 60 percent to 36 percent. Among age groups, the under-30s gave Obama his largest plurality.
Does this mean that Obama would have lost either or both elections if the minimum voting age had been 25? Not necessarily, although Obama did run behind Romney with voters over age 30: 48 percent to 50 percent. One has to remember that the reality was that there was a youth vote and Obama and the Democrats courted it (and Romney and the Republicans, to a lesser and less successful degree). If, the minimum age for voting had been 25, Obama would have modified his strategy.
Given that the “youth vote” strategy worked and, by protecting it from changes in the voting laws infringements, they would solidify this constituency, there is likely to be little movement to repeal this amendment. Another case of politics over science.
Quote without comment
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, State of the Union address, January 7, 1954: “For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America. They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons. I urge Congress to propose to the States a constitutional amendment permitting citizens to vote when they reach the age of 18.”