If Minors Could Vote

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It's easy to find people who want to change some aspect of government programs, revenue strategies, regulations, or spending. But one of the problems with getting any fiscal or political reform enacted is that everyone wants the pain of reform or change to rest on...well, somebody else. Seniors don't want Medicare or Social Security cut. Defense contractors don't want the defense budget cut. People earning income don't want more income taxes. Health insurance companies don't want health insurance regulation. And, as up to 18,000 students in New Jersey demonstrated this past week by walking out of class and staging public rallies to protest budget cuts, young people don't want education funding reduced.


But there's a difference in the student groups--a difference pointed out to me recently by a very civics-savvy seventh grader by the name of Kiran. Kiran is 12 years old, but his interest in civics and politics dates back to when he was five. According to his mother, he came home from kindergarten in tears one day after his class read a book about Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle. His distress over the injustice of King's life and death sparked a passionate interest in presidents, politics and civic process and change. By six or seven, he was watching C-SPAN on a regular basis. This past year, Kiran moderated a panel discussion on globalization for his school that included experts on microfinance, immigration, global markets and genocide intervention. And while his mother is an engineer and his father is a successful entrepreneur, Kiran already has very serious eyes set on being president one day.

The key difference--and injustice--that Kiran sees with regard to the student groups and issues is that, of all the citizen constituencies affected by national, state and local policy and funding, students represent the only group that can't vote. If a group of senior citizens or neighborhood activists organize a public rally or protest--or even answer opinion questions on a poll--one of the reasons politicians pay attention is that each of those people represents a vote. It's far easier to dismiss the concerns of young people and students, because there are no votes on the line. And that, Kiran argues, is why education funding is in such trouble.

"I think we need a seat at the table," he told me over a recent glass of lemonade. "What happens today impacts us, but we have no say in it." He pointed to the $120 billion-plus dollars spent last year in Afghanistan and Iraq, versus $25 billion in Pell Grants, and the huge discrepancies between the amounts being spent on Medicare, to make sure seniors get adequate health care, and the amount spent on SCHIP (the health care program for low-income children). "I think for every dollar spent on Social Security and Medicare, there should be a dollar spent on education and health care for young people," Kiran argued. "After all, we're the future of the country."

In a recent essay, Kiran wrote, "According to the Census Bureau,  6.5 million children are uninsured, compared with 1.5 million seniors. Today's children who don't receive preventative care become tomorrow's adults needing expensive intensive care." He'd hoped to enter the essay in The Washington Post's recent contest seeking a new opinion columnist, but he discovered after writing the essay that you had to be 18 years old to enter the competition. Which just underscores his point about how hard it is for people under the age of 18 to get their voice heard.

The lack of a voice and seat at the table, Kiran argued, is especially important because "what happens today impacts us." Especially with regard to the federal deficit. "If we have to pay your generation's debt, at least provide us with the best possible education," he said, adding that the burden being imposed upon the next generation by the current one, when youth have no right to vote, amounts to "taxation without representation." 

It's an interesting point and, quite frankly, one that's a little hard to argue. It's also an interesting exercise, to imagine how education funding would differ if every school child could vote. There are more than 53 million school-age children in the United States, accounting for approximately one-sixth of the total population. That's a pretty big lobbying constituency.

In theory, of course, the adults are supposed to serve as guardians of the children, acting in their best interests. Kiran's argument--echoed by the New Jersey students who walked out of class last week--is that we're not doing that.

I suppose the argument against giving students a vote or "seat at the table" is that they're not old enough to understand complex social and political issues, and they don't have a vested or responsible stake in society yet. Not all minors are as knowledgeable or tuned in to civic and global issues as Kiran, of course. But then, one could argue that neither are many of the adults who vote or turn out in raucous protest rallies. And certainly, young people have a real stake in the policies that are enacted--especially ones with price tags that stretch far into the future.

Young people often see things in somewhat simple terms, of course. When I asked Kiran how he would enact the changes he felt were necessary to improve both the system and the policies it created, his list included: transparency in lobbying efforts; a need for politicians to find the resolve and conscience to do the right thing for the country as a whole instead of just their own particular funders or constituents, even if that costs them the next election; a need for voters to become more educated about issues and think about the good of the entire society, not just themselves; a need for government programs, and those who administer them, to crack down on wasteful spending; and a need for everyone to take a longer view of investments and consequences in everything from health care to global warming.

On the one hand, that's a pretty idealistic list. How, for example, do you get the American populace to invest the time and open-minded effort to become more knowledgeable about complex issues? Even NPR and PBS are struggling to crack the code on that one. And that's not even tackling the challenge of getting people to accept a cost to themselves for the good of another group, "the community," or a future generation. Or the challenge of getting politicians to eschew party politics or sacrifice their own reelections for the sake of the larger national team.

On the other hand...he's also right. We do need all of those things. And there certainly would be value in having a voice in the national debate focused clearly--and simply--on the long-term view. What's more, imagine how much more engaged students might be in civics class if it was the one part of their education they could put to immediate use? That's assuming that we committed to teaching civics to all students, of course. But if students were going to have a vote, it might drive a far greater educational focus on that area. Kind of like the DMV's focus on driver training.

Giving young people the vote might sound radical. And it might not work for any number of reasons. But in the debate over how to change a political system that, as my colleague James Fallows has written, has become appallingly dysfunctional, it's an idea at least worth throwing on the table. True, there's much that young people don't know yet. But they're certainly an underrepresented constituency. And sometimes, out of the mouths of babes, or at least students, can come remarkable clarity, truth, and a long-view perspective that too often gets lost in the noise of adult fears, disappointments, tactics and games.
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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