By MANI THANGADURAI
The aftermath of yet another horrific school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, has seen many young survivors of the incident make themselves seen and heard in a very big way. These survivors, all teenagers who lost 17 of their friends on Feb. 14, took to publicizing their anger and hurt at being terrorized by a gunman and the apparent lack of compassion and concern from politicians and the NRA. These students have been so impressively articulate that many people have spoken out about their suitability to actually vote in elections. Supporters have specifically suggested allowing these students to vote by lowering the age of eligibility to 16. Proponents of this proposal have claimed that it would better initiate young people into civic life while also strengthening their voices and making sure that the health of America’s democracy is maintained.
For a start, I am NOT being patronizing when I say that the students caught up in the Parkland shooting deserve to be praised for their courage and articulation, especially in light of some disgraceful attacks from more than a few people on social media and a few conservative critics. Some have even received sickening death threats. The clarity of thought and purpose that these kids have displayed proves that they are eager to take up the mantle of being spokespeople and advocates for a better society and the improvement of their own lives. However, the idea that 16-year-old individuals who have not yet finished high school should now be allowed to vote in upcoming local and federal elections is an impractical one. That is because these individuals will quite simply have not had an adequate civic education by that time, and wouldn’t yet have a strong enough stake in society.
As praiseworthy as the students’ display of fire and brimstone is, we must remember that this is a reaction to an appalling tragedy which personally affected them. Prior to Parkland we had three other school shootings in the span of a fortnight in different parts of the country. With a smaller number of fatalities, not only was there inadequate media coverage, but we didn’t see similar student outrage over the injuries and lives lost. Why must there be a higher number of fatalities in an event of such evil for students to rise up and speak out? As I’ve already said, issues on gun control need to be made prominent every day, and not just in the wake of another mass shooting, be it at a school or otherwise.
More pertinently, the last time the voting age was decreased from 21 was in 1971 as a Constitutional Amendment, allowing 18-year-olds to vote on the basis that the same 18-year-olds were being drafted for the war in Vietnam. It seemed very unreasonable under the circumstances to deny them the right to vote since they claimed a substantial stake in the future of the country. In many spheres, though, the legal age has actually increased rather than decreased, reflecting a stipulation that a level of emotional and mental maturity is a prerequisite for such responsibilities. In fact, one of the more recent and welcome responses to the Parkland tragedy was Florida Governor Rick Scott announcing that the legal age to purchase a gun or firearm would be increased to 21 in the state. To offer 16-year-olds the right to vote based on their supposed untapped potential is a proposal that doesn’t get to the root of the issue, namely the currently low levels of voter turnout amongst the youth.
I don’t make the above statement lightly. A major criticism of younger voters is that despite having exponentially increased in number, they have not been able or even willing to exercise their rights to vote. Consequently, the polling numbers for their preferred candidates have suffered. This was the case in the 2016 election, where turnout among millennials was estimated to be a mere 50 percent, much less than desired. This effectively cost Hillary Clinton the election despite her garnering 55 percent of the youth vote compared to 60 percent for Barack Obama in 2012. The tragedy is this: had all millennials in 2016 voted, their votes would have enabled a victory for the Democratic nominee in many swing states, according to many polls and surveys. Rather than trying to muddy the issue by increasing the number of young voters, the challenge here is to make sure that the current crop of millennials realizes the importance of performing their civic duty and exercising their right to vote. Sadly in many cases, a large number of 18-year-olds lack a thorough civic education. So why should the sweeping population of 16-year-olds be afforded that privilege without fully knowing the value and significance of their vote and how pivotal it is?
Public and private schools should definitely make improvements in the quality of civic education afforded to their children. This shouldn’t be limited to informing students of the names of presidents, but should take the form of an actual systematic education about the branches of government, the chain of command from the top down, the significance of a vote, the electoral college, public policy, and the importance of being a well-informed, well-educated citizen. This should begin at a young age and should run until students finish high school. Perhaps one positive from the shocking election of Donald Trump and his highly controversial presidency is that an increasing number of young people are realizing how badly they stand to be affected by contentious federal policy, and are now coming forward to speak out and express themselves in the way the Parkland students have done. However, without even a proper grounding in the basic tenets of civic structure, we cannot expect these students to make well-reasoned choices. We have gone beyond the days when a sixth-grade education was sufficient, according to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Just as being literate means more than signing one’s name or reading a few words, being capable of voting now means that one must possess sound knowledge of all facets of political science, at least at a high school level.
It is up to schools around the country to realize this, and make sure that the youth of this country are better educated in the civic sciences. This is especially since we are now living in a tumultuous time like none other in history where several inalienable rights and social liberties such as life and the pursuit of happiness are clearly more threatened than ever. Whatever reasons younger voters have had to not participate in elections of years gone by, there can now be no excuse for them to abstain from performing their civic duty at all levels of government from local to federal. However, enabling 16-year-olds to vote will not solve the problem. They must instead be better groomed to really make better choices and have a more reasoned say as they come of legal age and are able to vote. A well-educated, well-informed young voter brigade will be an asset for a democracy. It is up to schools and students throughout the country to make this vision a reality.
Mani Thangadurai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org