Friday Takeaway: Bill Dwight 

  • Bill Dwight 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Consider this: Right now, the only qualification for registering to vote in these here United States is that you have to be a citizen over the age of 18. In some states you can’t be a convicted felon. That’s it. You don’t have to be a taxpayer or a member of Mensa or attractive or rich or a good speller or have a driver’s license or anything. Theoretically, you turn 18, and you’re an American — you can vote. 

So another election has come and gone and our jerry-rigged democracy stumbles along. Among the many things to analyze in the post mortems is the fickle nature of the electorate, this amorphous creature we both revere and dread. 

For as long as we’ve had the power of the individual vote, we’ve had various power-hungry groups trying to suppress it. After the Revolution, this whole “one man, one vote” concept was problematic for the guys aspiring to maintain control. (And let it be noted: They were all guys.) The one/one phrase was pithy, but it was not honest. It meant one man, who owned property, could vote for other men who owned property (which included slaves). Expanding the vote to people who weren’t landowners or people owners, or who weren’t white males, was resisted at every turn. 

Even when the privilege of citizenship was grudgingly “granted” over the span of our nation’s existence to the unpropertied, persons of color, women, and, most recently to 18-year-olds, obstacles were put in place to prevent the grantees from overrunning the powerful. Gerrymandering, poll taxes, voter ID laws, voter-roll purges — the list goes on.

I, for one, think the concept of democracy is a sound one. There’s a real benefit to opening up the vote to include as many people who care about participating in their own governance as possible. We’ve seen the outcome of elaborate schemes to depress participation. Why not try expanded access? See how that goes. It’s hard to imagine that the results could be much worse than what we’re dealing with now.

One of the symptoms of these unrelenting strategies’ effect is voter apathy and cynicism. Turnouts for elections have been chronically low all over America. That is, in no small part, by design.  

Here’s a thought (and it didn’t originate with me): In my capacity as a city councilor in Northampton, I have had the genuine privilege of being the liaison to the Northampton Mayor’s Youth Commission (NMYC), a group of Northampton residents between the ages of 13 and 18. This is the same collection of citizens who researched and co-sponsored the plastic-bag ban ordinance. They’re the ones who, after the slaughter at Sandy Hook, introduced a resolution calling for more comprehensive gun laws. They’re also the people who produced the Bench Walk event that brought artists from all over to create unique pieces of public art to promote the value of public space. So, anyway, the Youth Commission has been discussing this very issue of voter apathy, and they have an idea that might promote an unprecedented level of engagement: Why not lower the voting age for municipal elections to 16?

I’ll pause for your eye rolls and snorts to subside.

To get a clear-eyed sense of the community’s attitude regarding the admission of 16- and 17-year-olds to our enfranchised ranks, I dove into social media, that deep reservoir of thoughtful egalitarian bonhomie, to see what the philosophers there had to say about the idea.

Um… not a lot of people liked it. Folks on Facebook thought the notion was absurd. Bernie Bros, Hill-bots, Trumpsters and Brahmins, alike, linked elbows and agreed on this one point — to keep the kids at bay. “They’re not sophisticated enough.” “They’re too impetuous.” “They don’t pay taxes.” “They’ll just vote the way their parents do.” “They’ll just vote for liberals.” “They’re too susceptible to influence.” And so on. 

Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that some of these arguments were the exact same ones employed in opposition to granting suffrage to African Americans and women. And let’s also address the point that these arguments, while being unjust generalizations, still don’t matter. They are not disqualifiers. After all, if these criteria were applied to those of us who can represent ourselves at the polls now, we’d have a much smaller cohort. And who is the divine arbiter who decides whether we’re capable of making the wisest, most beneficial choices? I mean, Donald Trump was elected the president of the United States. Q.E.D.

So, before you dismiss the possibility of lowering the voting age by a couple of years, I ask that you let it percolate for a week or more. Consider that there are people in our community who yearn to have a say in how we are governed; people who care about their futures and our presents. If we truly believe that democracy becomes more sound with greater, diverse and more inclusive participation, then this idea is one worth trying.