What if kids could vote?

Ed note: This post is part of the second round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contributor contest (background here). Stay tuned all week as our six finalists take turns turns covering the blog and giving us a sense of their personal contributor style. The winner of the contest and newest member of the Feministing team will be announced next week!

The further along we get in this election season, the more passionately I start dreaming of a total upheaval of our political system. Electoral college? Super PACs? Two-party system? Does this all really make sense for us anymore?

Join me on a little thought experiment:

What if politicians had to be accountable to the needs and interests of America’s young people? What if American’s youth joined us on Election Day in making our collective choices?

What if kids could vote?

I am concerned about the disenfranchisement of youth. Right now, the government seems to think of kids, particularly teenagers, as either problems or commodities. Some kids seem to really matter, and others not at all. This framework has an impact on how they are treated—in schools, in stores, in their neighborhoods. As a result, we have cultural and institutional systems that consistently fail the vast majority of our young people.

But why would we let kids vote?

As a feminist, I value the role of young people in our society. I listen to the teens in my life, and I learn from them. I am in awe of those who are engaged and taking action. Youth at the United Teen Equality Center even started a campaign to change local law to allow 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections.

So what would happen if kids could vote?

I know that lots of different kids would vote in lots of different ways and for lots of different reasons. But a voting age of 16 might put more weight behind key feminist issues. Youth know the need for more public school funding and fewer standardized tests. Youth want better funding for college through government grants and student loans. Youth want JOBS. Oh goodness do youth want jobs.

Youth in the United States are more likely to be of color and living in poverty. In fact, 22% of American children live in poverty. That’s more than one in five children. Youth have a lot at stake in current conversations about the role of government in addressing our financial crisis and severe economic inequality.

Political power is also a key piece of the process of giving young people power over their bodies and their futures. Many teens want to be able to have sex and not have babies. And I wonder how youth voting would impact same-sex marriage or anti-discrimination laws.

Sex. Love. Poverty. Education. Jobs. What other issues might be impacted by the youth vote?

Mimi Arbeit is currently a doctoral student in child development, with a focus on adolescent sexuality and sexual health (read more in her Academic Feminist interview). In her research, she asks questions such as, “what are the features of positive, healthy sexuality for teens?” and “how do college students understand consent?” She is also involved in community-based projects in Boston and throughout Massachusetts to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools. She has over a decade of experience in teaching sex ed with young people aged 10 to 40 years old and designing and implementing queer feminist sex ed curricula and programming. She started her own blog four years ago at sexedtransforms.blogspot.com, which includes a series on wedding planning while queer and feminist, in addition to many other personal and professional explorations of feminism. She tweets @mimiarbeit.

Read more about Mimi

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/sabelson/ susan

    What a novel and interesting thought. If youth had more of a say in their lives, they might be encouraged to think more seriously. I love your observation about activist youth in the United teen Equality Center. That gives one hope, doesn’t it? Of course, if parents could listen more openly to their adolescent children, it could help them vote in kids’ interests also!! Hmm .. listen to your kids? There’s an interesting idea.

  • http://feministing.com/members/dpy2101/ David

    Interesting post! The most often predicted feature of child voting or child proxy voting (see: Demeny voting) is greater concern over government debt in general, and specifically an aversion to pay-as-you-go entitlement programs like Social Security (in countries with shrinking populations).

  • http://feministing.com/members/stephanie89/ Stephanie Ainbinder

    Awesome idea and food for thought!

    If youth could be counted on to vote (we already have polling places inside of schools, so at it could be very convenient) and would vote for candidates based on issues that were unique to their interest, how would elections change? Issues of public high school funding and testing and youth part-time/summer jobs (areas where 16 and 17 year olds have different needs than 18/19/20 year olds) would likely be thrust into the spotlight.

    Would the messaging of campaigns change at all? Would we see attack ads in seventeen magazine/ on MTV/ in high school newspapers? Rallies held in high school gyms? Candidates coming to high school football games to meet constituents? Would celebrity endorsements impact votes?

    For me, though, the question unfortunately isn’t “how would youth voting change things?” but “would youth voting change anything?”.

    Would high schoolers show up to vote at all? And if they did, would they vote differently than their parents?

    After the 19th amendment passed and women gained the right to vote across the country, there was hardly a huge policy swing, with a slow increase in voter participation and outcomes suggesting that married women were voting for the same candidates as their husbands. Granted, this argument doesn’t line up perfectly. Women had some rights to vote for different local elections, depending on the state, so women didn’t quite go from zero to universal suffrage (like 16- and 17-year-olds would). Also, on economic issues, women’s views may be more similar to their husbands than teens’ views are to their parents.

    The crucial issue, to me, is turnout. We could give my puppy the right to vote, but until he drives himself to a polling place and casts a ballot, no one is going to pass legislation giving him more dog treats.

    • http://feministing.com/members/samanthajess/ Samantha

      When I was reading this post, the first thing that I thought of was that decisions are being made on behalf of kids by those who are neither representative of nor acting on behalf of the best interests of whom they represent. @Stephanie Ainbinder: Your comment made me think further about how who would vote and for what, based on what. By whom would they be influenced? Would it be their parents -who they are voting for or aren’t? By friends or “the cool kids”? Teachers? TV? Celebrities? The candidates themselves?

      I love the way that you have positioned your unfortunate question of “would youth voting change anything?” I’m not sure how a messaging campaign could be geared to younger voters but would politicians spend time targeting these teens?

      Also, as someone who loves analogies, your puppy makes an excellent point. What is the motivation by non-teens to push for teens (16/17) to be able to vote? Are they as a group united enough or at all to speak out for that right?

  • http://feministing.com/members/he11okitty/ B Ham

    I don’t work with students, and never have, so my thoughts are based on purely anecdotal personal experience, but I am not optimistic that lowering the voting age would put more weight behind key feminist issues. As a teen, my political views (and most everything else about me) was motivated by one exhausting desire: Pleasing my parents. I wonder if, like with religious affiliation or other cultural identifiers, most teens wouldn’t vote along “family” lines? Especially considering that many adults do.

    Furthermore, I was educated (and I use that word loosely) at a public school where teachers — from the lectern — knowingly and purposely inculcated students into the blind worship of Ronald Reagan as a patron saint of evangelical Christianity. At 16, I was a *staunch* young republican, but those views weren’t my own: They were gleaned from adults who, at the time, I trusted and admired. I would have, unquestionably, voted against my interests based on the one-sided (and, I’d suggest, criminal) education I was receiving.

    I think a great number of students develop the skills necessary to form their own political opinions as teenagers, but I was raised — and educated — in a place that scoffingly discourages thinking outside the established regional zeitgeist and I didn’t learn critical thinking skills until college. It’s hard enough being different as a teen; can we expect that students in positions like mine (who aren’t even exposed to competing ideas) will be able to 1) form authentic opinions through critical analysis and 2) knowing the link between political identity and religious identity in the American system, take a stand as an “immoral” outsider?

    • http://feministing.com/members/whumpusthing/ Melissa

      I agree with the religious indoctrination I was put through in my education. At 16 aside from a few social issues I mostly followed my parents because I wasn’t sure how to make sense of all the economy/budget/international affairs that still is a bit overwhelming to research in depth. It would seem that a lot of people would just vote along their parents’ party lines, but then again, lots of youth go to rallies and such, so perhaps there could be hope for youth voting for themselves… hm.

    • http://feministing.com/members/jpayn11/ JP

      Religious indoctrination can and does last a lifetime. It’s not just teenagers who hold ideas that aren’t their own. Many adults vote the same way. I’m not sure that I buy this argument against youth voting rights based solely on this.

      • http://feministing.com/members/he11okitty/ Bret H

        Well, I think the point is: The entire system is broken. As long as people are voting along party lines based on their cultural indoctrination, democracy is a sham. It doesn’t matter if those people are teenagers or adults. The only “cure” is education and exposure to diverse ideas. Some people never receive that, or are unwilling to seek it out. But, adults — or at least the ones who have left enclaves of conservatism — are better suited to deal with the backlash.

  • http://feministing.com/members/anonymous8947/ A. Nonymous

    Compelling post!

  • http://feministing.com/members/rachelmh6384/ Rachel

    I couldn’t agree more with Mimi. I just wonder how do we decide when a kid is mature enough to vote? Why do we say 16 is the right age? Is age the best factor for determining voting privileges? How did she determine 16 was more fair than 18? Why not 15 or 14? If we want to transform our voting system, why not determine who votes by issue as opposed to age? Her brief article brought these questions to mind for me. Nice work- you got my vote.

  • http://feministing.com/members/whollyfoolish/ Matthew

    I like this thought experiment, but I keep getting mired in cynicism. I keep thinking of the saying that “Political orientation is genetic,” and so it seems like giving kids the vote would just empower their parents more. UNLESS giving kids the vote would also lead to more civic engagement, and more ways for kids to become independently educated on political issues. Which, I guess, would be fascinating… trying to figure out exactly how to provide accurate, age-appropriate, unbiased education on political issues to kids… hmm, and as an adult with not much time or political education, I wouldn’t mind some of that for myself.

    • http://feministing.com/members/emkatz2/ Emily

      I agree with Matthew – as a NH native, I was always lucky to be able to see the presidential candidates around election time. This post reminds me of being in middle school and having a lunch table discussion about voting – which meant we repeated what our parents said at home around the kitchen table the night before. Any disagreement prompted another round of repetition. We need to think about how youth are informed about political issues. Where should this education come from – parents, schools, after school groups? We need to examine the influences in their lives and think about the best way to provide youth with unbiased information and an opportunity to really think through tough topics. Whether or not kids can vote – teachers, parents, and mentors should use the election time as an opportunity for discussion and to teach kids about the importance of voting. Great post Mimi!

    • http://feministing.com/members/beetthesystem/ Aliza

      Matt, I believe kids are statistically more liberal than their parents and the younger people are, the more liberal, so I think while over their time there could be some attenuation back to the status quo, I think for some period of time, it might shift the popular vote. But then again, what Stephanie wrote would contradict that happening at all…

  • http://feministing.com/members/max2012/ max

    This is a great post. People often toss around the phrase “thought-provoking,” but it literally has provoked a lot of thoughts for me: Imagine how different our country’s military policy would be if the 16 year olds and 17 year olds who are preparing to fight our wars had a say in the political process. And I agree with commenter David that the social security debate would surely become a whole lot more interesting.

  • http://feministing.com/members/whumpusthing/ Melissa

    There are a lot of positives to youth voting, my only concern would be that 16-year olds would not be yet educated enough to make an informed decision. Yes I know that many people are probably not educated enough and of voting age but at least in the state of Indiana where I graduated our senior year was very government and civic-duty oriented, so I learned a lot about voting and our government right before I turned 18 and gained the right to vote. Perhaps if we made those types of courses earlier it could be a way to make lowering the voting process smoother?

    Something else fun would be to compare the voting ages in other developed countries and if that contributes anything.

    • http://feministing.com/members/whumpusthing/ Melissa

      Also I didn’t see the other comments because I had typed half a response, left it there for a few hours, and finished it, so if I repeated stuff, my bad!

  • http://feministing.com/members/mtgoldma/ mtgoldma

    I love this thought experiment, regardless of the feasibility! Considering how much reproductive health policy directly affects people under the age of 18, we should pause to recognize that as long as these young people are not represented, it’s going a serious challenge to take their very real interests into account in the political process. Voting or not, we need to engage with this!

  • http://feministing.com/members/jpayn11/ JP

    One argument for youth voting, at least in a very specific situation:

    My brother was emancipated at age 17 and joined the armed forces. He served in the air force and eventually was sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was deemed by the government old enough to die for the U.S., but he was not old enough to vote for his commander-in-chief. No reasonable person can call such a predicament anything other than travesty.

    And as the writer alluded to, the disenfranchisement of youth disproportionately affects a lower socioeconomic class. The situation of a 17 year old serving in the military but ineligible to vote is more common than you think, and unfortunately such situations are bound to turn up more frequently as you move down deeper into “the 47%.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/rachie/ Rachie L

    I have started to wonder why our educational system does not talk very much about what it means to be a contributive citizen. While this may be an unwarrented generalization, very few kids (of any background) are raised with the value of civic engagement. I only remember one good friend growing up who knew about politics and that was because her mother worked for a local congressman. Other than that politics was not a part of my schooling, my homelife etc. and I imagine it is not a part of most people’s lives.

    By the time most of us are allowed to vote, we are outside of strictly regimented educational systems and guardianship. If those things went hand in hand, perhaps the regimen of American children would include political education and a heightened sense of citizenship.

    I wonder if kids voting could actually be the seed of reforming our educational system in a way that shifts the foundational question from ” what do kids need to know to get a job?” (and yes I know this is too simplistic considering different school systems and different systemic expectations for children of different classes, genders, races, abilities etc.) to “what do kids need to know to make a positive contribution to their communities?” That seems like a potentially positive shift!

  • http://feministing.com/members/sabelson/ susan

    What a novel and interesting thought. If youth had more of a say in their lives, they might be encouraged to think more seriously. I love your observation about activist youth in the United teen Equality Center. That gives one hope, doesn’t it? Of course, if parents could listen more openly to their adolescent children, it could help them vote in kids’ interests also!! Hmm .. listen to your kids? There’s an interesting idea.

    • http://feministing.com/members/beetthesystem/ beetthesystem

      although what is depressing is how opposed to the UTEC youth vote campaign the most powerful individuals in the state legislature were, even though there was a broad base of support for the youth voting initiative. i think it all comes down to the fact that kids don’t have power in our system and in order for new folks to gain power, someone else needs to concede power. and we all know that those with power will not concede without a fight.

      maybe this would be an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that kids (for the most part) are not supposed to be subjected to the adult judicial system (though we know that it does happen all the time, in unjust ways), and teach kids civil disobedience…but then where do you draw the line between disobedience to some authority figures but not others…

  • http://feministing.com/members/adrapk01/ Anna

    I remember wondering this myself as a kid! Of course, there would have to be some sort of limitation. I remember voting for Ross Perot at a mock election in elementary school because I felt bad that no one else was voting for him! I have grown up a little since then, which makes me think there is something to be said for waiting until people mature before allowing them to enter the polls…

  • http://feministing.com/members/mimiarbeit/ Mimi Arbeit

    Let’s keep the conversation going at the version of this post over at the main site– comment at http://feministing.com/2012/10/15/what-if-kids-could-vote/

  • http://feministing.com/members/smberryart/ SM Berry

    Although my family openly spoke about politics and I always knew who they were voting for, the quality of my education touched on topics that we didn’t speak about at home and I formed my own opinions on them based on classroom discussions and assigned readings. These subjects include euthanasia and animal testing.

    As I write this, I realize that the topic of euthanasia is ballot question #2 for Massachusetts’ State Election this fall (NOV 6, 2012!). Now, at age 29, memories of 8th grade civics class debate (thank you Mr. Bender!) are helping me decide if I want to support a law that would allow a physician licensed in my state to prescribe medication, at a terminally ill patient’s request, to end that patient’s life.

    The ballot question makes me a little uneasy and I will read the proposed law carefully before I make my decision. So when we talk about kids voting- are we talking about presidential elections or complete voting rights? I would have been thrilled to vote for Bill Clinton at age 13, but I think I would have been unsure about how to proceed if asked to cast a vote for or against doctor assisted suicide.

  • http://feministing.com/members/rfigurasmith/ Rachel F

    I was lucky enough to go to an amazing public high school in Queens, NY where each year we did a mock election. We were funded and dictated, loosely, by our local City University. Each year, seniors’ history classes were randomly chosen to be the print media, the spoken media, the television media, the Democrats, independents, Republicans, progressive interest groups, conservative interest groups. Ninth through eleventh graders were each given $150 of fake money that they were to spend or donate as they wished, and two random “fat cats” in each grade were given $1500. We held weekly radio shows, put out newspapers, weekly television “broadcasts,” live debates, and more. My senior year was the year of the 2004 election, so we also did direct political action- visiting inner city Philadelphia to get out the vote.
    What was most amazing to me, in all of this, was that after the months of mock election we went through, we voted. Every single year, without fail, our results mirrored that of the nation. Including in 2008– in NYC, in a liberal, public, humanities high school.

    I wonder if my experience would mean much on a larger scale– who knows? But I do think some of the points raised above are very worthwhile. Would teens know enough to vote differently from their parents? Would teens show up? I tend to think the answers are yes, but we live in an age of failing- miserably failing schools.

    It’s an interesting thought though! Thanks, Mimi!

  • http://feministing.com/members/llowe80/ Lauren

    Excellent article, Mimi! I have to completely agree with Anna, as I had the same experience during my seventh grade mock elections. We spent a lot of time learning about the election process and discussing the candidates, and in the end I chose Ross Perot. My reasoning was partly that I felt bad for him, but mostly because he was rich and I thought he would give America money and that would help the economy. I recall my dad and I having a few discussions about that! :) Today, my choice in candidate reflects a very different opinion than the one my 12 year old self held, so there is definitely something to be said about maturity.