Ralph Waldo Emerson once quipped that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This week, I offer a solid example in which society is best served from at least a little bit of consistency.
State Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco) has introduced a bill (LD 706) to lower the voting age in Maine from 18 to 16. No other state allows 16 year-olds to vote in general elections. In fairness, several states do allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register but those states also require voters in a general election to be at least 18 years of age.
In North Dakota, however, there is no need to register to vote.
Do you remember when you were 16? I do. I had black-light posters, a crush on Farrah Fawcett and I listened to AC/DC on an 8-track player. I was also a political junkie who watched Nixon resign and board a helicopter on the White House lawn when I was 10.
When I was 12, I got to shake President Carter’s hand when he made a campaign stop in Biddeford. When I was 16, my father volunteered for Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential run in 1980.
Subsequently, without thought or curiosity, I became an ardent and passionate Democrat.
Today, I have had the experience of raising two 16-year–old boys. I love my boys and they both turned into fine young men, but there was no way that they were ready to vote back then.
Old enough to die; old enough to vote
In 1971, Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. That amendment was fueled in part by the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft of 18-year-old into military service.
The 26th Amendment set up its own range of inconsistencies. For example, at 18 you are old enough to join the military but not old enough to purchase alcohol.
O’Neil’s bill, however, is riddled with many more inconsistencies. 16-year-olds are rarely, if ever, tried in criminal court for a criminal offense; instead they are tried in juvenile court and sentenced to a juvenile detention facility if found guilty.
While 16 is the minimum age of consent, they cannot act in pornographic movies and are too young to buy a pack of cigarettes. At 16, society says that you cannot sign a legal and binding contract, including marriage without parental consent. I could keep going, but you probably get my point.
When it comes to minimum age requirements, Congress mandates that you must be at least 25 to serve in the House of Representatives; 30 to serve in the Senate and 35 to be elected president.
While O’Neil acknowledged those inconsistencies, she also says her bill is designed to address some other inconsistencies.
“Reaching the age of 18 is a big milestone in all of our lives,” O’Neil says. “But the truth is [turning 18] does not signify some seismic shift in an individual’s ability to participate in society or civic life. At the age of 16, young people are working under our employment laws, paying taxes, and driving on roads. They are attending school–there’s no one more in touch with our education system than students and educators who are in school every day.”
O’Neil says she was motivated to submit the bill after working with several juvenile supporters during her campaign for office, specifically pointing to her campaign manager, 16-year-old Cole Cochrane, a sophomore at Thornton Academy.
Cochrane says “we don’t need to just focus about current responsibilities for 16 year olds, but about how we contribute and the ultimate outcome.”
According to Cochrane, lowering the voting age has proven to increase voter turnout rate in countries like Austria, and even in some American cities. “One must consider the contributions we make to society. We are foundations of campaigns, go to schools that are run by the government, and take on jobs that support our economy. Although we may be considered children by law, it is time to consider us voters as well.”
While many scientists and neurologists say that a brain is not fully developed until one turns 25, both Cochrane and O’Neil point to other studies that say 16-year-olds are fully capable of making decisions and critical thinking.
“I already consider this argument somewhat irrelevant given this data point.” Cochrane says. “Decision making capabilities are developed by 16 years of age, indicating that we are able to make decisions despite these concerns.”
Overall, there are multiple benefits to lowering the voting age, Cochrane says. “From validation of millions of voices, to strengthening our democracy. It is time to act now, for the betterment of our state.”
O’Neil readily admits that her bill (currently stuck in committee) faces a “steep hill to climb to send the bill out to voters.”
“No matter what the outcome is, these young people have led an important conversation in the legislature,” O’Neil said. “I’m proud of the work they have done. Their voices are so important, and the legislature needs their perspective.”