3-Minute Civics: Will the youth vote turn out?

  • In this July 4, 1971, file photo, President Richard Nixon signs the Constitution’s newest amendment, which guarantees 18-year-olds the right to vote in all elections. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/26/2020 6:20:15 AM

Calling the right to vote “the cornerstone of all our other basic rights,” 50 years ago the late Ted Kennedy urged fellow U.S. senators and all of Congress to support amending the Constitution so the national voting age, in federal and state elections, was 18. “We know,” he said, “that there is already a high incidence of political activity,” and “[n]one of us who has visited a high school or college in recent years can fail to be impressed by their knowledge and dedication.”

The Massachusetts senator’s argument came amidst legislative and judicial wrangling involving the Supreme Court regarding who had the power to enfranchise young voters, and at what level of government, and his testimony came decades after the first efforts to make the change, going back to World War II.

In fact, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, between 1942 and 1970, “more than 150 similar resolutions went before Congress, but none of them gained traction.” Some called for changes in law without amending the Constitution – which, by the end of the 1960s, had been done just 15 times since the Bill of Rights was added to our plan of government.

The Vietnam War changed that, finally giving energy to the “old enough to fight, old enough to vote!” mantra that emerged decades earlier when President Roosevelt, by executive order, lowered the minimum age for the military draft to 18, without addressing the minimum voting age of 18 set by most states.

Spurred by the realities of Vietnam – especially the fact that more than a quarter of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1970 were under 21 – the nation sought change and the 26th Amendment, ratified by the necessary 38 states in the summer of 1971, was approved faster than any other amendment in U.S. history. In a ceremony, President Nixon celebrated the chance for newly enfranchised voters to “infuse” into the nation a mix of idealism, courage, stamina and “high moral purpose.”

Sometimes, however, hope does not translate to reality – or does it? The recent wave of social and political movements and issues sweeping the land – focused on everything from climate change and police accountability to racism, school shootings, economic justice, and the pandemic – has teachers again wondering whether the moment will transcend time and lead to a lasting impact driven by the actions and passions of young people.

In other words, is 2020 the year that the promise and force of the 26th Amendment will finally be felt at polling stations? The numbers are there to suggest that’s a possibility, but so are the concerns and the trends behind them that tell another tale.

According to the Pew Research Center, come November, 1 in 10 potential voters will be members of the exceptionally tech-equipped Gen Z (those born in 1997 and after). The news site Axios pegs the number at 24 million Gen Z voters. Combined with millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), 47 million Americans between 18 and 29 will be eligible to vote in the election, according to Voice of America.

Looking at recent elections, Gen-Zers, millennials, and Gen-Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980) – when combined together – narrowly “outvoted” other groups in 2018 and 2016 due to more eligible voters hitting the polls and millions of newly minted 18-year-old voters on the rolls, Pew reported in May.

Beyond elections and on the streets, last month Pew reported that, at 41%, the majority of people who recently attended a protest or rally focused on racial equality were between the ages of 18 and 29.

Additional data suggests that young people, specifically members of Gen Z, are readying for their electoral impact. Not only did a recent survey conducted by The Hill find that more than 75% of Gen-Zers viewed voting as a duty, a Public Religion Research Institute survey reported by the Washington Post in 2018 found that four in 10 people ages 15 to 24 “followed a campaign or cause online, signed an online petition or posted on social media about an issue that mattered to them.”

Despite the numbers, however, young people are being encouraged by leaders such as President Obama to make sure their energy is also directed to the ballot box. Whether they will heed the advice is another story, a possibility underscored by the 40% who told The Hill that “a major reason members of Gen Z do not vote is simply because they believe their vote will not change the election outcome.”

That “disillusionment threatens to perpetuate a consistent generational gap in election turnout,” the New York Times recently reported, drawing on interviews with young protesters depicting an empowered but, in terms of how they view our government, quasi-enfranchised electorate.

Then, of course, is history. Between 1972 and 2016, the proportion of young people ages 18 to 24 who voted decreased from 50% to 39%, and the percentage of those who registered to vote outpaced those who actually voted for president in every election, according to the research hub Child Trends.

So, we face a quintessentially American paradox: the group of voters who were invited into the electoral process with the 26th Amendment is the same group that, today, harbors some trepidation if not outright opposition to the very system that granted them that power. Fortunately, however, young people have shown us the necessity and power of showing up to make sure we’re heard.

(Adam Krauss teaches social studies at Exeter High School.)

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