Adelberg: Disenfranchisement Today

Standing up for the voting rights of “minors” is an imperative.

by Steven Adelberg | 10/5/17 1:00am

We live in a time of tremendous social change. America enjoys more pluralism, civil rights and social equality than at any other point in its 241-year history. In the social media-dominated election of 2016, millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest generational voting bloc. American democracy is more open, young and diverse than ever before. However, this country systematically denies the birthright of voting along a stark line of social, moral, political and economic inequality. This condemnation of young Americans to second-class citizenship delegitimizes our democracy, hinders long-term policymaking and violates human rights. We must recognize the inalienable voting rights of our minors.

The history of voting in America is a long and storied trek toward universal suffrage. When the United States ratified the Constitution of 1789, only property-owning white male citizens aged over 21 years enjoyed the fundamental right to vote. They claimed to be the only ones with the knowledge, intelligence, responsibility and personal investment to properly govern the country. They built an aristocracy around the ballot box. In dramatic movements, Americans have patriotically chipped away at this oppressive power structure pillar by pillar. The poor and downtrodden eliminated the property requirement in 1828, paving the way for Jacksonian democracy. The abolitionists put their lives on the line to defend the human rights of slaves, restoring the integrity of the Union. The women’s suffrage movement doubled the eligible voter pool and paved the way for the revolutionary New Deal. Time and again, progressive movements reinvigorate American democracy by smashing discriminatory bars on the right to vote. Only the adulthood barrier remains.

It is a barrier that patriarchs erected in the era in which children were seen but not heard. Today’s youth have a voice that is as passionate as it is diverse. America would do well to take notice. Minors are activists, charity-founders, leaders, volunteers and around 24 percent of the population. “Minors” make a major contribution to American society, an addition to the melting pot that must be recognized at the ballot box.

There is no better time than now to extend the vote to minors. The American National Election study found that among current voters, older adults are more likely to be highly polarized than younger ones; in a time of division, imagine the possibilities of a democracy where young, swing voters make up a larger portion of the electorate. As political discourse moves online, many minors have already engaged in the public sphere through social media. Young voters care more than their older peers do about important but under-discussed issues such as the treatment of minorities and the environment; adding minors to the national conversation would strengthen advocacy for positive public policy changes in such areas.

There are many potential civic benefits associated with the removal of the voting age limit. While some may assume that young voters are not knowledgable, a month before the 2016 election, over 40 percent of American voters couldn’t name either vice presidential candidate. The illiterate have a right to vote. Are minors unintelligent? Each generation has stronger cognitive skills than the one before it. Regardless, there is no IQ test required for voter registration for a reason. Many common objections are baseless. Are younger voters fiscally irresponsible? The younger voters are, the more responsible they are on fiscal issues like federal entitlements. Or are young voters too easily influenced? Minors diverge from their parents politically the more parents attempt to indoctrinate them. America also enforces robust voter intimidation laws. Are they simply uninterested and uninvested in the political process? Minors have the most to gain and lose from public policy, since the consequences will affect them the longest. These objections are the same ones that were levied against the property-less, African-Americans and women. They are the stock and trade of American aristocracy. The ban on youth voting is not the product of reasoned public policy — it is a vestige of America’s discriminatory history.

American aristocracy has long attempted to distract the people from the fundamental fact that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Notably, the phrase is “all men are created equal,” not “all men become equal once the earth hurtles around the sun no less than 18 times.” Too many thoughtful minors are disenfranchised by this arbitrary threshold; 92 of them fill Dartmouth’s classrooms, dining halls and student groups. Would it be any less arbitrary if the aristocrats drew the age line at 16? 15? 12? No matter where the line is drawn, people who are equal will be unable to choose their preferred representation at the ballot box. Voting is not a privilege distributed by governments on the basis of merit — that’s aristocracy. Suffrage is a human right we must defend if we are to remain a democracy. If an American citizen can express their preference in representation through speech, writing, sign language, whatever, then we must let them do so at the ballot box no matter how young they may be. Anything less is an assault on the legitimacy of the American social contract.

Given this widespread voting rights issue, Dartmouth has a chance to drive change and take affirmative action toward correcting this injustice. America can see progress if communities of leading colleges and universities can foster awareness and activism. Dartmouth College hosts no less than 34 student organizations dedicated to issue awareness. Our community is too engaged to turn a blind eye to a human rights violation harming 92 of our classmates, a significant part of America’s population and American democracy itself. Through dialogue and demonstration, Dartmouth can spearhead change.