What is it with certain Democrats and their desire to debase the vote? I can’t think of any other way to describe it. That would be the obvious upshot of a proposal by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, to reduce the voting age to 17.
“Young people are our future,” Low said. “Lowering the voting age will help give them a voice in the democratic process and instill a lifelong habit of voting.”
When, oh Lord, can we bury that hoary cliché? Young people are our future – and that’s a terrifying prospect. Civic ignorance is an epidemic, and we would do well to focus on eradicating that particular disease before allowing it to spread further. Lowering the age of eligibility would expand the pool of low-information voters, and that’s about it.
But Low is hardly the first to make a fetish of the mechanics of the franchise, with little or no apparent regard for the heavy responsibility the vote entails.
Fact is, politicians have been chasing the “youth vote” for almost 50 years. And for 50 years, the creature has remained almost as elusive as the Sasquatch.
The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1971, was supposed to empower millions of 18- to 21-year-olds and revivify American democracy. The result? Well, the very next year Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide, so draw your own conclusions.
Yet the pursuit continues. In my dog-eared “democracy” file, I found a story from the Los Angeles Daily News published on Feb. 25, 1995. Then-Assemblywoman Jackie Speier had introduced an amendment to the state’s elephantine constitution that would have lowered the voting age to 14.
Speier reasoned that if 14-year-olds could be prosecuted as adults for felonies such as murder and sexual assault, then surely they could be entrusted with the vote. “I don’t think there is any magic to 18,” she said at the time, “and I think we need to look at ways of enfranchising young people in this state as part of the political process.”
Speier’s amendment died, but the idea lives on. Today, 22 other states and Washington, D.C., already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and caucuses if they will turn 18 by the general election. It’s already the case that 16-year-olds may “preregister” to vote in the Golden State. But we would be the first to allow 17-year-olds to vote in all elections.
For the small-d democrat, nothing is so awful as apathy. We must increase turnout! The cure for what ails democracy is more democracy! The problem with our elections isn’t that voting is too difficult or that not enough people turn out. Voting is getting easier all the time, but voters are still staying away from the polls.
We’ve had absentee voting for decades. Voter registration is a breeze. Before this year, it was as convenient as filling out a form at the DMV or online from the comfort of your couch (a process, we’re assured, nobody ever lies about or noncitizens never, ever exploit). Starting this year, Californians can register to vote on Election Day.
That is, of course, if they bother to show up. Turnout for the 2014 gubernatorial election was just 42.2 percent – a record low for a statewide general election.
The more democratic we become, the less enthusiastic we are about democracy. Could it be that people have nothing worth voting for? A 2014 Public Policy Institute of California study found that our vaunted top-two primary system, which in practice often leads to two candidates of the same party squaring off against each other, has only depressed turnout further.
What’s a good small-d democrat to do?
Here’s a thought: stop making something so precious as the vote so cheap. Certainly don’t make it even cheaper by extending the franchise to 17-year-olds.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (www.amgreatness.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benboychuk.