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Disenfranchised Youth

by RALPH NADER

You are sixteen. You can legally work, drive a motor vehicle and with parental consent get married in most states. Why can’t you legally vote?

Good question, and one that supporters for dropping the voting age from eighteen to sixteen will be asking politicians more and more. Much has been made of the youth vote this year amid evidence that more young people are turning out to vote in the primaries than ever before. Let’s take it to the next step.

I argued for the voting age drop from twenty one to eighteen back in the Sixties before it finally happened in 1971 with the ratification of the Twenty Sixth Amendment to our Constitution. The absence of a vibrant civic culture inside and outside our schools drained away much of the potential of this electoral liberation for youngsters. Their turnout was lower than older adults.

Sixteen year olds are likely to be more excited. They are studying and learning about the country and the world in high school. They’re still at home and can bring their discussions to their parents, who may turnout at the polls more as a result.

Fifteen year old Danielle Charette, writing last January in the Hartford Courant says: “Consumed in the distraction of their first semester at college, many eligible voters fail to arrange for absentee ballots. Of course, if annual voting became more habitual starting in high school, reading up on the candidates and voting while away from home wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

Moreover, social studies teachers in high school would be keener on non-partisan class analyses of candidates if their students were able to vote.

Ms. Charette made another telling point. Sixteen year olds who also work pay taxes but they have no vote. This is “taxation without representation,” she exclaimed.

Austria lowered its voting age to 16 last year, prompting similar proposals by New Zealand legislators. One Swiss Canton (Glarus) lowered the voting age to participate in local and cantonal elections to 16 in 2007. British member of Parliament, Sarah McCarthy-Fry expects a debate on the 16 year old vote issue soon in the House of Commons.

Austrian Social Democrat Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said that lowering the voting age was a “challenge to Austria’s school system” in the field of political education. While New Zealand MP, Sue Bradford ties this voting reform in her proposed legislation with making civics education compulsory in high school to enhance students’ understanding of the political system.

Bills in Minnesota and Michigan have been introduced to lower the voting age. Their rationale is to give a “real opportunity for young people to vote on something that affects their daily lives,” according to Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul.

Now it’s time to hear from these young Americans. They can exchange and spread words faster and cheaper than any generation in history – what with YouTube, MySpace and Facebook communications.

Here is some advice to them: First don’t just make it a matter of your voting right as “citizens now,” not citizens in waiting. Recognize your responsibilities and duties of engaged citizenship.

Second, raise some compelling changes and redirections that will improve life in America especially for you and generally for all Americans. You know lots of them. Just ask yourself, as you shop, study, work, play, breathe the air and drink the water, and watch the TV news, what kind of country do you want to see in the coming months and years?

To jumpstart the 16 year old voting movement, youngsters need to start jumping. Needed are rallies, marches, and personal group visits to your members of Congress and state legislatures at their local offices, especially when the lawmakers are not in session and are back in their home communities.

Don’t over rely on the Internet. The impact from showing up in person is far greater.

I’ll be talking up the sixteen year old vote. But it will only become a reality if a teenage political revolution makes it happen.

RALPH NADER is running for president as an independent.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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