Thursday, March 11, 2004

I'll see your vote, and raise you a quarter

This is the op-ed that almost was . . . now, I share it with the phoblog family:

“They're all going to laugh at you! They're all going to laugh at you!"

Two groups of people know that line well: movie buffs who love demonic prom killer Carrie and Californians.

Last Monday, Senator John Vasconcellos announced his proposal to let 14 and 15 year old Californians to cast one-quarter of a vote and 16 and 17 year olds to cast a half a vote. There are 21.5 million eligible voters and around 2.4 million Californians between ages 14 and 18. But this adds up to one bad idea.

The concept is noble - afford our youth a stake in our political process - but it does not address the problem it seeks to correct. Supporters cite two statistics: in November 2002, only half of all registered voters and only one-fifth of voters aged 18 to 25 cast ballots. The key word is "registered." Those numbers get worse if you measure turnout against the population of eligible voters. Both turnout percentages will fall under this plan as we increase the denominator while ignoring the ailing numerator.

Here's another concern: since their votes count for between ¼ and ½ of my vote, can kids under 18 run for office as a team? The California Elections code requires candidates to be registered voters. If a 14-year-old's vote counts as ¼ of a regular vote, does that make him or her ¼ of a regular candidate? It would follow that four 14-year-olds could hold office together. Better yet would be two 15-year-olds and a 17-year-old with a driver's license to drive the team to fundraisers.

Or why not require all able-bodied 14 through 18 year olds still living with their parents to drag them to the polls? It would get them involved without running afoul of those pesky equal protection laws.

Equal protection laws? Well, though the courts may uphold some forms of age-based discrimination, they would be hard pressed to uphold a law reducing the voice of one whole American by three-quarters. Why not give them 3/5 of a vote? I wonder what response that particular fraction would trigger? What part of the one person, one vote formula remains unclear?

Allowing 14- to 17-year olds to vote will not empower them. It will not make elected officials accountable to California youth any more than they are accountable to California's 18 to 25 year olds who are currently watching their UC and CSU fees raised and services slashed. The 26th Amendment was necessary - if you're old enough to go to war, you should be able to select the officials who will send you there. But the existence of the right to vote alone does not create responsive leadership any more than giving people the vote makes them vote. If we want compulsory voting why not make registering to vote a graduation requirement for all California public school students? Why not make it a requirement for admission to UC?

Californians, that sound you hear is the laughter of your fellow states. What we need is more and better civic education. What we need is for 18-year-olds to speak up for themselves and their younger siblings and to tell their parents to do the same. What we need is for kids to ask not what their election code can do for them, but what they can do for voter turnout.

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