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Let 16-Year-Olds Vote, You Cowards

Well before teens turn 18, they are engaged in the machinery of the state, wide awake to its cruelties. And they deserve to be heard alongside their parents

Watching Melbourne 17-year-old Will Connolly slap an egg on the ignominious head of Australian senator Fraser Anning, who blamed Muslim immigrants for the massacre of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I couldn’t help but be inspired. How many millions of us live under the racist rule of absolute shit-smears like Anning — or his American counterpart, Rep. Steve King — without immediate recourse besides ratio-ing their terrible tweets? Connolly, who has earned a place in political history as “Egg Boy,” is not even old enough to vote; his options were direct action or nothing.

That Egg Boy, who is not represented by his nation’s democracy, had the moral conviction to humiliate an elected Islamophobe even though it meant a beating from “30 bogans” feels miraculous — but the revolutionary power of youth has always been at a high premium.

Less than a week ago, students in New York were arrested for participating in a march for climate action, and similar strikes occurred around the globe. Survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting went on to become passionate gun control advocates, often proving smarter and better-informed than the right-wing pundits who mocked their cause. Teenagers are a critical bloc in justice movements like Black Lives Matter — and no wonder, given how many black and brown kids are killed by the police.

Well before someone turns 18, they are engaged in the machinery of the state, wide awake to its cruelties. And they deserve to be heard alongside their parents and grandparents.

Already, too, 16-year-olds are making decisions that shape their future. They know they stand to inherit a broken planet, and they’re eager to find solutions. They’re natural reformers and skeptics — exactly the cohort to hold government careerists accountable. In 1971, the United States ratified Amendment XXVI to the Constitution, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, largely because 18-year-olds were eligible to be drafted for the war in Vietnam but had no electoral voice. Couldn’t you extend that argument to kids who are dying in classrooms and face environmental catastrophe thanks to a congress that sides with the NRA and fossil fuel companies? Quite frankly, I’d trust a high school sophomore at the ballot box more than behind the wheel of the family minivan.

Republican calls to deny 16- and 17-year-olds the franchise, or even to raise the voting age to 25, are as cravenly self-serving as the party’s attempts to suppress the minority vote, gerrymander its way to office and commit outright election fraud. Liberal-leaning and inclusive, Generation Z prefers socialism to capitalism and shares millennials’ progressive ideals on social issues like transgender rights or same-sex marriage. The GOP is correctly terrified by such data and clearly has no incentive to allow younger Americans a say in choosing our leaders — but happily conscript their own children for anti-abortion events and fawn over a 7-year-old who set up a hot chocolate stand to raise funds for Trump’s proposed border wall. For both “normal” conservatives and the crypto-fascists, teens are useful as foot soldiers, never as persons with actual intellect.

Most notably, the fringe right has spread hardcore misogynist and white supremacist ideology with help from Big Tech’s godawful algorithms. Part of the problem there, I suspect, is that teens can take ideology as theoretical rather than consequential — they might share “ironically” offensive material without regard for where it may lead. By giving them the responsibility of real democratic participation, we could steer their energies toward constructive platforms and away from the nihilist trollscape. If 16-year-olds get summer jobs in order to develop work ethic, then why not the right to vote to show them what civic duty means? The prevailing argument against this — that teens are simply too ignorant and inexperienced to pick a candidate or evaluate policy — is laughable at best. It’s the baby boomers, not their grandkids, sharing fake news and Qanon conspiracy theories on social media, yet no one acts to disenfranchise them.

The sole reason to prevent a younger demographic from voting, or strip 18-to-20-year-olds of the right, is fear that they won’t vote for you. But instead of asking why the generational tide has turned against them, conservatives cling to the lie that teenagers have no understanding of the systems that dominate us as a populace. To that, I can only say: Have you met a teenager? They think about that stuff a lot, as much as anyone who lacks agency thinks about attaining it. And really, if Fox News wants to spout off on what a disaster 16-year-olds would be as voters, then maybe they ought to fire a host who says men in their late twenties should be able to marry 16-year-old girls.

I’m not saying younger voters won’t have missteps — just that their elders committed the greatest electoral blunder in living memory without them. Personally, I’d be proud to line up at my polling place with teens like Egg Boy and the Parkland crew. Hell, even the MAGA boys of Covington Catholic deserve an opportunity to pull the lever behind a curtain, freed from the supervision of parents and teachers. A imperative lesson of adolescence is the realization that personal choices go beyond us, rippling through this world. To deny our kids that knowledge when they’re ready for it is no education at all.