On Lowering the Voting Age in Providence

In the wake of two sets of interviews by Dan McGowan with potential city council candidates, I noticed that Dan raised the idea of at-large council seats. I don’t particularly love it, I think at best the at-large councilor would be a persuadable swing vote, at worst, they could plausibly argue popular support no matter how paternalistic their policies.

But it is election season, and I wondered what I would rather see discussed. And then I remembered, the growing push to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, especially in municipal elections. I would like to see the new city council lower the voting age in Providence elections to 16.

The reactions to this proposal are usually derisive. “Why should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote when people say they don’t want them to smoke or use tanning salons?” They’re all immature idiots anyways, certainly not the kind of person we want to vote.” “Forget lowering, raise it to 30!”

These are the same sorts of people who whine about how coddled and delayed adulthood is these days, while bemoaning poor turnout but do nothing to change any of that.

Suffice it to say, views of when the “age of majority” is really upon you is unclear. In Twelve O’Clock High, put out four years after WW2 ended, Gregory Peck’s Gen. Savage declares “It’s pretty tough to have to grow all the way up at twenty-one,” when speaking about the youth of his bomber crews. A recent Pew Study found that nearly 5 out of 1000 15- to 17-year-olds were married; bringing to mind medieval traditions of betrothal in infancy (with contracts often stipulating backups in that time of high infant mortality).

For much of the 20th century, those 18-20 who were not denied the franchise on the basis of their race or gender could drink and die in combat yet they could not vote (younger in years earlier). Today, those who are 16 and 17 can hold a job, pay taxes on their income, and drive a car (and possibly kill someone with it) — hell, the age of consent is 16 in Rhode Island! There’s no clear age of majority where you cross from being an irresponsible kid to being a fully-functioning adult, and we’ve never really agreed on that anyway.

Regardless, as Vox’s Zachary Crockett puts it:

In addressing what motivates decision making, social psychologists identify two drivers: “hot” cognition, and “cold” cognition. Choices motivated by hot cognition are entirely emotional in nature; there is little reasoning or rationality involved. Cold cognition, in contrast, is independent of emotional involvement. Voting, in its ideal form, should be a cold cognition task: We would hope our voters are able to make decisions based on facts and evidence rather than emotion.

Philip Zelazo, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, had people of varying ages perform two tasks that measure executive function abilities — the Eriksen Flanker Task and the the Dimensional Change Card Sort. His research suggests that by age 16, cold cognition skills are near fully developed.

Further research has shown that 16-year-olds “possess the same level of civic knowledge as older young adults” (those ages 18 to 25). While their knowledge is not up to par with that of, say, a 40-year-old voter, there is no statistical discrepancy between them and 18-year-old voters who already have the right to vote.

Those who cry hypocrisy are off. Equating concerns about public health that are attendant to issues of smoking with personal responsibility is a bad faith reading of the positions of advocates of either position. I don’t doubt there are people mature enough to make harmful choices. But there are plenty of harmful choices that we ban because the societal cost is higher than we’re willing to bear.

In fact, from this perspective, lowering the voting age brings us the benefit of increasing the likelihood of later voting, as it appears voting is habit-forming. Why not lay foundations for our youth to be lifelong voters when they’re still with their parents, and can more easily make it to the voting booth than when they’re 18 and in a transient point in their lives? We want to increase turnout. This is a simple way to do it that also has the added benefit of expanding our democracy.

It’s impossible for me to look at the work of the Providence Student Union, Youth In Action, PrYsM, and Generation Citizen and come to the conclusion that such people are unworthy of full participation in the civic life of our city. It makes all the sense in the world, that given they are already doing more than the vast majority of those with the franchise.

And one final thing: we talk about the concerns of students in the school system. As long as they are disenfranchised, student concerns can be run roughshod over by parents and teachers as there’s no reason for elected officials to pay any attention to them. Giving students a vote introduces a very important voice into the debate over our school system, one that’s currently all too easy to ignore.

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