Imagine yourself a Democrat seeking elective office in a competitive district, the kind of place with a reassuring plenitude of Unitarian churches and vegan bistros, but just a few too many tax-weary entrepreneurs and stodgy evangelicals lurking about to let you breathe easy. You calm yourself by sitting back and rereading an old favorite poem, Bertolt Brecht’s “The Solution,” and you wonder if the author was onto something when he reckoned it could make sense “to dissolve the people and elect another.” (Brecht was being sarcastic, but you, being a Democrat, cannot sense this.)
You desire some extra voters who can’t be bothered to worry about corporate taxes, trade negotiations, fossil-fuel extraction, or law enforcement, who hand-wring instead about the real issues of our time: legalizing prostitution, abolishing prisons, and calling people by their preferred pronouns. Rejoice, then, for Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) wants to help you. Her proposed amendment to H.R. 1, the misnamed “For the People Act,” would let 16-year-olds vote.
A cynical read on this idea is that it burdens tender youths to benefit a more privileged class, namely left-wing politicos. But is such cynicism unwarranted these days? Consider a parallel: teachers unions, since they originated, have capitalized on the powerlessness of children and have done so with preternatural gall in this epoch of COVID shutdowns. Leftist politicians, who at least match American educrats in avarice, have simply found a new way to exploit juveniles by disrupting their focus on their intellectual, social, and spiritual growth.
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Do I exaggerate? An exemplary high-school sophomore, on a typical weekday, makes time for Cartesian geometry, colonial history, Darwinian evolution, and Victorian literature, or some like combination; he goes to band or track or basketball practice; he might devote a half hour to religious study and prayer; he could have considerable chores or family obligations; he will certainly fraternize with his peers and may pursue romantic interests. And if he has a few minutes to spare when the day is done, he might even unwind to a favorite television show or music playlist or video game. Pressley and her accomplices have a message for these kids: Stop! While you’re trying to become a well-adjusted human being, we’ve got big issues to deal with—issues that happen to affect our ability to cement our reelections and live off your parents’ tax dollars.
If students halfway through high school could vote in Pasadena, TX, for example, they’d be tasked this year with electing three members of the San Jacinto College Board of Trustees. If my teenage neighbors in Belmont Hills, PA could be electors, they would vote on jury commissioner, tax collector, and constable. Most educated and civic-minded adults cannot tell you whether the incumbents holding these offices are performing optimally, whether the candidates seeking these spots are impressive, or even what some of their names are; and if grownup voters wanted to get their heads around these questions, it would often take them much time. Why impose this on children, except if you’re a Democratic pol who realizes you’ll gain by doing so, having seen the latest Pew Research Center survey or Harvard Youth Poll?
Pressley takes no pains to hide that she wants more teenage voters because she finds them politically congenial. “By lowering the federal voting age from 18 to 16 years of age,” she said in a House floor speech, “my amendment would enfranchise young Americans to help shape and form the policies that will set the course for our future. From police violence, to immigration reform, to climate change, to the future of work and minimum wage, our young people are organizing, mobilizing, and calling us to action. They are at the forefront of social movements….”
We’ve assumed so far that we’re dealing with model youths; Pressley’s legislation would undoubtedly enfranchise plenty of mediocre ones. But even precocious teenagers generally can’t equal their parents’ wisdom or responsibility. We’ve all met bright 16-year-olds but few of us have met any fully educated ones. These kids have not lived autonomously; they may have held jobs but not earned real livings, much less provided for families of their own. Pressley has said she has 16- and 17-year-old exceptions to this living in her district—teenagers on whom parents rely for income. A proper solution to this would place these children with guardians who can and will care for them, rather than leaving them in a harmful setting and using that environment as a political football.
In any case, when it comes to discernment, the congresswoman assures us the kids are alright. “Some have questioned the maturity of our youth; I don’t,” she remarked in her floor speech. “Sixteen- and 17-year-olds today possess wisdom and maturity defined by today’s challenges, hardships, and opportunities.” So, then, taking her at her word, we can confidently await Pressley’s efforts to allow 16-year-olds to drink, to smoke marijuana, and to carry guns.
She did make one honest remark when introducing her proposal: “My amendment gets to the heart of H.R. 1….” That it does; H.R. 1 contains reams of obscene election policy. Congressional Democrats are interested in the bill’s voting reforms, as they are in Pressley’s amendment, insofar as the changes aid their party’s electoral ambitions. One provision in H.R. 1 would restore suffrage to at least 2.2 million felons, including some still on probation. Also astoundingly, the bill would force states to count ballots cast by voters outside their correct precincts. While the government shouldn’t throw barriers in voters’ way to see if they are smart enough to overcome them, finding one’s own precinct is no sane person’s idea of a challenge. If a voter can’t do this, we ought to declare him a winner of the electoral Darwin Awards and be glad our very lenient system weeded him out.
There’s much else to hate about H.R. 1: it suppresses political speech, removes checks against voter fraud, and requires all states to accept no-excuse absentee ballots. Americans aren’t demanding our electorate comprise only informed and sensible people. But we might want to set that standard for our lawmakers, to protect ourselves against the likes of Ayanna Pressley.