Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Right to Vote

"Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

"Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Twenty–sixth Amendment to the Constitution
Adopted July 1, 1971

It has been suggested that Barack Obama might not be president today if not for the unprecedented participation by young voters in 2008.

I don't know if that is true.

Let me be clear about that. I'm not talking about the part about unprecedented participation. That part is true.

What I mean is, there were many groups that voted for Obama, some of them overwhelmingly. You can't give young voters all the credit (or blame, depending upon where you stand on the political spectrum) for Obama's election.

But the 18–to–29 group (which provided 18% of the election's participants, according to exit polls) certainly was in Obama's corner, supporting him over John McCain by better than a 2–to–1 ratio.

(A recent Gallup survey suggests that the president will be hard pressed to duplicate his 2008 performance in 2012. Barely over 50% of young voters would vote to give him a second term, Gallup says.

(So I don't think a campaign strategy that relies on the youth vote is likely to succeed.)

Accounting for nearly one–fifth of the electorate is pretty good. In fact, it is much higher than normal. Typically, young voters represent closer to one–sixth or one–seventh of the total vote.

That isn't exactly the participation rate that America's senators had in mind 40 years ago Thursday when they voted 94–0 to send an amendment lowering the voting age to the states for their approval.

My guess is that most of them expected to reap electoral benefits from adding all these new voters to the total. Then, much to their dismay, many of these new voters turned out to have better things to do than stand in line to vote on Election Day.

The Senate vote was the first step toward giving suffrage to young Americans, and it turned out to be a short trip. There was virtually no opposition to the idea. The House gave its overwhelming OK two weeks later, and, within four months, enough states had voted for the amendment that President Nixon was able to sign it into law that summer.

In all of American history, no constitutional amendment has been ratified so quickly. And it has always been a disappointment to me that many young voters don't seem to appreciate what they have.

Lowering the voting age wasn't a particularly new idea. President Eisenhower was the first to propose it nearly 20 years earlier.

People of my parents' generation were fighting and dying for their country in Europe and the Pacific when they were 18, but they couldn't vote for or against the politicians whose decisions shaped the world in which they lived. Neither could the people who fought in Korea — or most of the people who fought in Vietnam.

(In fact, a popular rallying cry of the time was "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote." It was hard to argue with that logic.)

And neither could the high school girls who used to babysit my brother and me when we were little — although all that changed 40 years ago.

Even though it has been four decades since that amendment went into effect, it seems to me that young voters have been going through the kind of evolutionary development that every new voting group must experience on its way to maturity. Perhaps reality has shown them that they must vote with their heads, not their hearts.

On the other hand, the 18–to–21–year–olds who will participate in 2012 were not old enough to participate in the last presidential election.

They will enter with a clean slate. Obama will not be fighting to keep them in his column. They were not part of his electoral coalition last time. They may have helped with get–out–the–vote efforts, they may have handed out bumper stickers and buttons, but they did not vote. They were prevented from doing so by law.

This time, they will be eligible to vote, but, if Gallup is right, Obama might prefer that their participation level drops back to more typical levels.

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