Should We Take Away the Voting Rights of 18 Year Olds?

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Mr. Furnish, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta.

President Nixon is usually denigrated for Watergate, his “enemies list,” even his participation in post-World War II anti-Communist fervor. But there was a blunder committed by the 37th president that far outstrips all his others combined. That was signing the 26th Amendment into law in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.

Lowering the voting age such that all college freshmen, and even many high school seniors, could help choose the Republic’s leaders was undoubtedly one of the dumbest things ever done in this country’s history. We can’t totally blame Nixon, since this misguided movement had been supported earlier by Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson and, of course, practically the entire Congress in Nixon’s time. May they all fry in one of Dante’s lowest circles of Hell for this transgression against political sense.

What is wrong with such young folks voting? Doesn’t democracy work better when the franchise is extended to as many Americans as feasibly possible? And isn’t it true that “old enough to die, old enough to vote?”—as the amendment’s supporters argued during the Vietnam War?

To answer these questions in reverse order: no, no and ARE YOU KIDDING?!. Democracy works when KNOWLEDGEABLE citizens vote, as was recognized as long ago as Plato’s and Aristotle’s time. Can any rational member of the human species watch Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking”—in which he roams the streets of Southern California, interviewing folks who don’t know the vice president’s name, which hemisphere they live in—and possibly think it’s a good idea for these people to be left alone with a voting machine of any kind?

As a college history professor, I can cite examples of 18- and 19-year olds’ ignorance that make the Jaywalkers look like the Founding Fathers. One of my students recently announced that he’d received a draft notice in the mail (can anyone say “Stripes?”). No one in an entire modern world history class this term knew when the American Revolution began. When I queried my classes “what is the approximate size of the U.S. budget for the upcoming fiscal year?” most replies ranged between a few hundred million dollars and a few billion (the actual figure is about $2 and 1/2 trillion). Most of my students thought that the African-American population made up “30 or 40 percent” of the U.S., whereas it’s actually 12.5 percent. Many of my students have written, on tests or papers, that Jesus is worshipped by the Jewish people and that Muhammad lived before Jesus. (Shouldn’t voters know something about the world’s major religions?) And I have had many students who thought that Nazi Germany used nuclear weapons in World War II (in which case wouldn’t we all be goose-stepping and speaking Deutsche?).

My point is not to score cheap points at my students’ expense. (Almost all of them, after all, went to public school in Georgia—the state that ranks 49th in SAT scores—and most of us college professors here have resigned ourselves to the fate of repairing the damage done by secondary school teachers—which might be worth contemplating the next time public school teachers are demanding yet another pay raise.) The point is that we allow such uninformed people to vote! Indeed, we encourage it: MTV’s “Rock the Vote,” P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die.” There’s even an organization, “Youthrights.org,” that demands we lower the voting age to 16! (Just what we need: presidential candidates taking stands on their preferred anti-acne medication.)

Now there is no guarantee that a 30-something voter will be more informed than one just out of high school—but it’s a good bet. As Michael Barone points out in his book Hard America, Soft America, this nation’s 18-year olds are, on average, coddled, spoiled and ignorant; but by the time they hit their third decade, most of them are extremely competent and productive (thanks to good colleges, the business world or the military).

So I won’t go as far as my wife, who cites Barone to advocate 30 as the minimum voting age. I’ll settle for raising it to 20—with a major caveat, addressing the “old enough to die, old enough to vote “ argument. The late science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in his book Starship Troopers (try to pretend you’ve never seen the horrible movie, Denise Richards notwithstanding), posited a futuristic world government which worked extremely well because of one thing: only those who had proved their dedication to the collective good, by volunteering for the military, could vote. So let’s set up a similar system, with both a military and civil volunteer component (in the latter those opposed to warfare could help with international disaster relief, for example), requiring a two-year minimum stint. Thus one could join right out of high school, at 18, and then when the term of service was up at 20 the right to vote would follow. Two years in such an environment would not only demonstrate the individual’s seriousness about citizenship, it would almost undoubtedly educate them beyond the level of the modern Jaywalker or college undergrad.

If that smacks too much of social engineering, let’s at least institute a qualifying quiz for voters, of perhaps three questions: 1) what’s the square root of 16? 2) who is your current congressional representative? 3) what part of the U.S. is now being referred to as “Jesusland?” Or devise your own questions—but we need some litmus test that demonstrates the prospective voter knows SOMETHING and has not just been demagogued into believing that the GOP wishes to starve senior citizens or that the Democrats want Bin Ladin to move into the Oval Office.

We dodged a bullet in this election, when the ignorant youth masses turned out in record numbers (51 percent of the 18-29 year olds voted; figures for subslice of that pie that includes only 18-20 years olds is unavailable), which broke for Kerry by about 10 points. Only the fact that most other age groups voted in even larger numbers drowned out the callow masses’ otherwise influential cluelessness. One would like to think that even Democrats “win at any price” desperation stops just short of encouraging Know Nothings to support them. So I say: dock their vote! Repeal the 26th Amendment before President P. Diddy is sworn in.

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Daniel Glenn Schwartz - 12/15/2010

Oops, that should say "when the 38th state ratified...". I guess the digits 3 and 4 were on my mind from thinking about "3/4". BTW, while it is customary for the Secretary of State to certify that an amendment has been ratified, that is not actually a required part of the ratification process.

Daniel Glenn Schwartz - 12/15/2010

The author makes some valid points about the foolishness of having the completely ignorant vote. But she (I think it was a woman, my apologies if I'm wrong, I can't seem to get the article and byline back on my screen right now) makes a major gaffe of her own when she refers to President Nixon signing the 26th amendment into law. Unlike congressional bills, Constitutional amendments do not need to be signed into law by the President to become effective. A Constitutional amendment goes into effect when it is ratified by the 3/4 of the states. When the 34th state ratified the amendment, it became part of the Constitution immediately.

JACK Tyler - 10/19/2008

Sen. John McCain had a rather older lady how was asked how she would vote and said Sen. Barack Obama is an ARAB and shoe wouldn't vote for an ARAB. Sen. McCain did correct her but to propose that because you are under 21 you are un-informed or stupid is absurd. These same young voters are to future leaders and to remove their right to vote is usually reserved for convicted felons! The activists for candidates are those who have the fire of conviction to volunteer for candidates. They are more likely to be informed about candidates vote and actually go out and vote.
Why not remove Hispanics too because many don't speak English? Aren't the ballots and campaign ads in English? They can't understand but are allowed to vote.
Removing the younger voters from voting is a travesty. You can die for your country in the military but can't elect anyone to office. Their blood give the non-vets the right to vote but takes it away from a young military person, even an officer!

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

If 18 is too young to vote, then it must certainly also be too young to be enforcing conventions against war crimes in Falluja.

Tim R. Furnish - 4/14/2005

Well, your claim NOT to be ignorant might be enhanced if you could SPELL.

Great Affinity - 3/17/2005

Please note that I'm saying to be ignorant is one way to be patriotic. Many patriotic people are not ignorant.

Great Affinity - 3/17/2005

If you want to show your patriotism as an American citizen, you must be the most ignorant person anyone in the world has ever seen. Many people of all ages has no idea that 32 degrees celsius is a warm temperature. Some christians (Catholics and Protestants alike) are very unaccepting of other religions and make sure they know nothing of those religions.

As an 18 year old canadate for the Riverside County (California) School District board, I find it very good that 18 years old vote, besides if thier opinion really was that unwanted by the public, no one should worry becuase only ten percent of us acutally voted in 2004. We have almost no effect on politics today. And I certainly do not personally know no other 18 year old who has ran for office.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/13/2005

Excerpt----"To answer these questions in reverse order: no, no and ARE YOU KIDDING?!. Democracy works when KNOWLEDGEABLE citizens vote, as was recognized as long ago as Plato’s and Aristotle’s time. Can any rational member of the human species watch Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking”—in which he roams the streets of Southern California, interviewing folks who don’t know the vice president’s name, which hemisphere they live in—and possibly think it’s a good idea for these people to be left alone with a voting machine of any kind?"

Jay Leno's pool is selective. Indeed, I doubt that his pool of ignorance is limited to 18-21 years olds, by any means.

Indeed, my experience in college was one of continually finding people with a great deal of knowledge and enlightenment. I was enriched by my experiences. Frankly, I am not sure that I have found any kind of pool of enlightenment that has compared since. I vertainly have not found it in "good" colleges (Skull and Bones controlled Yale), Big Business, or the Military-Industrial Complex.

As for this quote:

"The late science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in his book Starship Troopers (try to pretend you’ve never seen the horrible movie, Denise Richards notwithstanding), posited a futuristic world government which worked extremely well because of one thing: only those who had proved their dedication to the collective good, by volunteering for the military, could vote. So let’s set up a similar system, with both a military and civil volunteer component (in the latter those opposed to warfare could help with international disaster relief, for example), requiring a two-year minimum stint."

It is clear that a militaristic world government is what this author is aiming to build. Typical of Neocons and others who favor this agenda, he will stop at nothing, including disenfranchisement and outright alteration of our Constitutional System, to achieve it. Rick is a good man, and a friend, but shame on him for letting this trash in to HNN.

A True Monotheist In Israel

Amelia Kai Roberts - 12/20/2004

A response to the comment posted by Timothy Furnish, Ph.D. about taking away the voting rights of 18 and 19 year olds.

As an 18 year old (who voted), I think that it is unjust to accuse all citizens under the age of 20 of being too ignorant to vote. In truth, some are. However, there are also older voters who one could argue are too ignorant to vote. Before voting I watched both the prsidential and vice presidential debates in order to be more well informed on the candidates' views. I hold opinions on major political issues and have information on them which I use to support my arguments. I do know the square root of 16 (4), I know the name of our vice president (Dick Cheney), I know that the region that has come to be referred to as "Jesusland" takes up most of the United States. I am knowledgable about world religions (Islam is newer than Christianity and Jews do not believe in Jesus. Why else would the Christians have spent so much time persecuting them?).
At the age of 18 I have travelled to seven more countries than our president had when he was sworn into office. Neither of my parents are in the millitary and we are middle class. I am fluent in two languages and speak four more non-fluently. Do you know what else? I go to school for art, in your own state of Georgia, in fact. Many people don't even regard art school as real school.
It is true that a twenty year old voter will have two more years of life experience under their belt, however, I do believe (and we may simply disagree on this) that if one is old enough to die he should have a say as to who is sending them away to do it. It is also true that public education is on a downslide (my high school U.S. History course shamefully skipped the Civil War). Perhaps if teaching was a higher paying position, it would attract more qualified individuals. Don't you think that it would be far more effective to put money and energy into primary and secondary education than to instate a manditory military or civil service term? By creating a more educated youth base, there would be no need to raise the voting age.

Frederick Riley Woodward-Pratt - 11/30/2004

I woudl like to say i am rather saddened by Mr. Furnish's unwillingness to respond to his critics. this is, of course, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he even read's these comments on his essay. In any case, it is a pity that a man so willing to give other's his ideas, will not engage in any thing truly constuctive, like a dialouge.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/23/2004

I don't share Professor Furnish's political perspective, but I live in Georgia. Believe me, there is much about its systems of public education that merit disdain.

Helge Moulding - 11/21/2004

Folks in Georgia may be 49th on the SAT, but with folks like Dr Furnish educating them, how could they do better?

Anyway, here are some other points to consider about Furnish's little piece.

Jaywalking works because Leno doesn't put up the people who have the right answers. That wouldn't be funny. People are probably smarter than Dr Furnish thinks they are.

As for the bits of knowledge that Furnish considers essential: Mostly they aren't, you know. The point of a vote for a representative, in a representative system (ours is not, strictly speaking, a democracy), is that the representatives need to know that stuff. We get to pick which of these representatives we trust best to do a good job. It doesn't matter if I don't know what the size of the USAn budget is. I need to know merely if I trust the representatives that I send to Washington to do what's sensible. (I may know more than that, but that doesn't do me one least bit of good, given that I'm not the representative being sent to Washington.)

OK, maybe you still think it helps to know more stuff to decide which of the representatives deserves our trust. (You should at least know the people amongst whom you're chosing, right?) But, given that some very intelligent people who know exactly as much as I do make very different choices when they step into the voting booth, I still think that this knowledge comes out in the wash. It doesn't really matter.

As for Heinlein's story, or the movie (Furnish only doesn't like it because it makes it obvious how silly the story is, whether or not Verhoven meant to do that), fiction isn't exactly where you should go to find out what works. Fiction is made up stuff, you know. Stuff that didn't happen. It may sound good if the author has the knack for it, which Heinlein did, but that doesn't mean you should take it as a model for reality.

Thomas Russell Wingate - 11/20/2004

Get this straight: the President plays no role whatever in amending the Constitution.

He may express an opinion, but so may any citizen.

Nixon never signed anything about the 26th Amendment.

When two thirds of both Houses of Congress submit an amendment to the States for their consideration, it does not go to the President's desk.

States which ratify the proposed amendment send their instruments of ratification to the U.S. Secretary of State. If and when ratifications prove sufficiently numerous (the 27th amendment took 200 years) the Secretary of State announces that the Constitution has been changed.

We have got to get over this unconscious royalist notion that nothing important happens without the President having his thumb in the pie somewhere.

Peter W. Brady - 11/19/2004

In case no one else pointed it out, Professor Furnish should check his facts regarding presidential powers. Specifically, the president does not sign constitutional amendments into law. The president plays no formal role in the passage or rejection of amendments. It is a matter only for the states and the US Congress. Take a look at Article V of the Constitution.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/19/2004

There's nothing magical about the 18th birthday that confers with it the benefits of adulthood. In fact, it confers some of the benefits of adulthood, but some (like age of consent, or age at which one can be charged with a felony as an adult) come earlier and some (like alcohol privileges) come later. It's a convenient age because it's about when most people finish high school and "go out into the world" but it's arbitrary.

Granted, there should be a pretty high bar to removing existing rights, but if you grandfather it in, then you aren't doing that. There are other societies with different ages for "adulthood": 20 in Japan, for example (though you can buy alcohol in vending machines, so that's not an issue).

There's increasing evidence to suggest that 18 may not be the age at which, biologically, most people's brains have actually developed good judgement. That's a rational standard; why not discuss it?

Frederick Riley Woodward-Pratt - 11/18/2004

Pardon me, but what relevance does this have to my comment or even the discussion as a whole?
Perhaps you mean to suggest that people under twenty are more likely to vote for him than older adults. With this there appear to be several problems. First, and most obviously, even taking the postulate that eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are more likely to vote for a pop culture persona than twenty-year-olds, it is probably safe to say that twenty-year-olds are more likely to do so than thirty-year-olds. That is to say, if a significant difference in the intelligence of currently eligible voters exists based upon age, it will be one which changes on a gradient, not at set points, and as such, drawing a line at twenty, or thirty, or eighteen is purely arbitrary and does not reflect any significant and sharp changes in psychology, let alone intelligence specifically.
Secondly, of course, is the assumption which we took as a given in the last paragraph, but is by no means so. Though there certainly are plenty of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds who are perfectly willing to subjugate their will to that of popular culture, this is by no means a phenomenon limited to or even necessarily exemplified by this age group. I have seen no evidence beyond the sort of anecdotes that Mr. Furnish provides.
Finally, there is the assumption that "Arnold S." does not represent a valid political figure. Though i certainly do not agree with him on a good deal of issues, by all acounts i have read he has proven himself to have a modicum of political accumen.

Nancy Tann - 11/18/2004

let's realize that some are talking about Arnold S. running for president. Anything is possible.

Nancy Tann - 11/18/2004

Apparently he has been hired by the state of Georgia, whos educational system he disdains.

Andrew D. Todd - 11/17/2004

I think there are two aspects to voting age: the right to be considered, versus the presumption of discretion. The right to be considered arises ultimately from humanity, corresponds approximately to what a lawyer would call "standing," and is therefore possessed by small children. I believe Shulamith Firestone (_The Dialectic of Sex_, 1970) was one of the earliest to propose extending the vote to all children, and then having it exercised by their parents or guardians if necessary.

Furthermore, the right to be considered is not forfeitable by virtue of felony. If it were, then prison guards would not be even theoretically liable to prosecution for abusing prisoners. The legal sentence of outlawry, meaning that the offender may be killed by whoever finds him, is obsolete. When you say that someone lacks discretion, that means that his vote reverts to someone who can reasonably be considered to act on his behalf.

A more moderate measure would be one in which electoral totals are scaled according to population at a fairly local level. Practically, measures of this kind would have the effect of moving the electorate a bit leftwards. We come back to John Locke's theory of "virtual representation," as expressed in the _Second Treatise_. Application of population scaling would tend to discourage "energizing the base."

Frederick Riley Woodward-Pratt - 11/16/2004

A minor clarification. I realizing that the phrasing in my discussion of Athenian democracy was a bit odd. Service in government was decided by lot, voting was garaunteed to all male citizens.

Frederick Riley Woodward-Pratt - 11/16/2004

This article was somewhat shocking. To begin with, the author appears to have some substantial problems in his reading history and philosophy. Though it is not stated explicitly, on my first reading of this article i drew the impression that the author was harkening back to Plato for his philosophical structure. Of course, feeling as i do that you need to take the good with the bad, it is worth pointing out that Plato advocated a despotic state to which the individual would be subservient (supposedly he would be a good leader for this). He best idea as to how to creat this was to steal children from their parents, take them out to the country, and indoctrinate them there. However, the author does not explicitly state his adherence to Plato's philosophy, so perhaps we shoulk look instead to the general understanding of Greek democracy. Knowledge was not so much a criterion as not being a slave or a woman. In fact, far from relying on knowledge as the deciding factor in not only who would vote, but who would serve in government, was chance. Yep, the ancient Athenians didn't take tests, or rely on their elders, or even vote. They drew lots to decide who would serve in their leadership positions.

Aside from Mr. Furnish's evident inability to read a history textbook, which, by my reading of his article, should probably disqualify him from voting, he neglects a primary foundation of our quasi-democracy (though i am a radical, this is not meant cynically. We do not have a pure democracy). The principal of utility, though i do not subscribe to it, nonetheless must be acknowledged as essential to the American political process. It posits that if everyone is given a vote, they will act in their own best interests, and when a majority is reached, the decision will be one which coincides with the best wishes of the greatest part of the population. Of course, this has been slighty adulterated by the additions of protections of the minority in our constitution and the represenattive system, but the idea was still part of the considerations of our Founding Fathers.
Beyond this, the train of thought that Mr. Furhish follows could have some highly disturbing results. After all, aren't the poor even more likely than eighteen to twenty year olds to have less education, not only by virtue of the time education consumes which could be put to use procuring money necessary for survival, but also due to the inferiority of schools in low-income areas? Should we reintroduce the requirement of property ownership to make sure the uneducated masses of poor don't let their filty voices muddy the otherwise pure waters of American democracy? Or perhaps we could train our sights on other groups with statistically lesser degrees of education, such as Afreican-Americans or Latinos or women. Why, according, the Founding Fathers really were on the right track by restricting the vote to white, property owning men, because clearly, these smart folks are the only ones qualified to make decisions for us. Though i would love to, i feel going into the socio-politico-economic causes of this unequal distribution of education would add far too much to this already lengthy comment. There are many more points which i could bring up to invalidate the ageism of Mr. Furnish, but i think here i will thank those of you who have read through all of this. I especially would enjoy a dialouge with Mr. Furnish, if he is kind enough to read this.
By the way, perhaps it is relevant to point out that this was written by one of those ignorant eighteen-year-olds who, due to my unswerving adherence to popular culture went with the flow of opinion and voted...Green.

Kaylee M. Olney - 11/15/2004

There are so many flaws of logic in this article that I can't even begin to comment on them all. I can only pray that Furnish is pulling an elaborate joke, as I shudder to think that a man with such distain (bordering on outright hatred) for young people would actually be one of those in charge of educating them.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/15/2004

Thank you for the excellent satirical post. Things have been far too grim around here lately.

chris l pettit - 11/15/2004

It is not the age...it is the education, social and cultural environment, and media.

Do you actually think it is the 18-15 year olds who still believe that Saddam had WMD and used them against US troops?

Why don;t you do yourself a favor and work on educating and removing ignorance instead of denying people voting rights?

While I would agree that democracy does not work when one want to actually defend human rights and work towards peace, due to the twin idiocies of nationalism and religion, democracy does have its place and everyone should have the right to vote...certain Islamic nations allow those as young as 12 to have a say in the process...something I support as an advocate of children;s rights...and knowing that the children are oftentimes more intelligent and moral than the adults that indoctrinate them into the cycle of ignorance.