Only 10 percent of voters in the May 23 Arkansas primary election were under 35 years old, according to a July 4 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis. That was down from 12 percent in 1998.

Low voter participation among young people is nothing new, but whenever the topic comes up, the phenomenon is attributed to a combination of indifference, cynicism and laziness.

Russia, however, may have hit upon a solution: get 20-somethings into elected office. The country’s ruling party decided in April that 20 percent of their federal and regional candidates must be between 21 and 28 years of age.

I had a similar idea in 2000, when I wrote the following essay for a contest sponsored by the Center for Voting and Democracy. (Some edits were made for length.)

n The reason why young people don’t vote can be found in the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers, progressive and tolerant as they were, saw fit to cite age as the only limitation to holding a federal elected office.

In a document that rightly stands as a model for modern liberal democracy, neither race, gender, religion nor creed are mentioned as being relevant to the qualifications of a representative. This only serves to emphasize the degree to which age discrimination is rooted in the American political system.

From the beginning, those under 25 (the minimum age for a member of the House of Representatives) have been treated as less-than-equal citizens, so it is no surprise or coincidence that men and women aged 18-25 represent the demographic group that votes the least.

The age requirements mandated in the Constitution for the House, Senate and presidency are arbitrary to say the least. What makes a 25-year-old more qualified to represent his or her fellow citizens than an 18-year-old? Why do the responsibilities of a senator require five additional years of life experience over that of a representative?

Some may contend that a certain level of maturity is necessary for such important positions, or that the age restrictions ensure that only those who have a personal and professional stake in the community can stand for office. Interestingly enough, these same arguments were used against women who campaigned for the right to vote in the early years of the 20th century. Women did not have the “temperament” to make important decisions, according to popular sentiment, and why should they vote if they didn’t own property or have jobs? Of course, the same logic was used to defend the original positioning of the voting age at 21.

When a citizen turns 18, the law regards him or her as an independent entity, capable of voting, paying taxes, and serving in the military. To deny this citizen the opportunity to hold federal elected office is inconsistent and discriminatory. Voters should be the judge of a candidate’s abilities and qualifications without the government setting restrictions based on certain personal characteristics.

Now why does this kind of age discrimination affect voter turnout among young people? In the first place, it is clear that a sense of disenfranchisement with the political system develops when citizens cannot identify with their representatives.

In an ideal world, any citizen ought to be able to effectively represent his or her fellow citizens, regardless of background. But in reality, districts with a racial, ethnic or religious majority elect members of Congress who look and think like the majority. Young people never have the opportunity to vote for people who share their generational perspective, and this understandably leads to apathy and disassociation from the political system.

Imagine if a big university town sent a 22-year-old to Washington on a platform of increasing federal assistance to post-secondary institutions and financial aid to students. Or consider the excitement among young professionals that would accompany the Senate candidacy of a 26-year-old. Do you think more young people would vote? Of course they would, because suddenly they would identify with a political figure who speaks their language and understands their interests.

With this in mind, the minimum age requirement for all federal elected officials should be lowered to 18. The American people and the U.S. government currently do not tolerate official restriction of political participation according to any other category, and our history demonstrates that groups that endure such discrimination, when liberated, become active and vital members of the polity. Young people don’t need new ways to vote; they just need a connection to the political system that makes it seem more relevant and accessible.

The right to vote is a powerful tool of democracy, but so is the right to contest positions of power. When the latter is finally extended to young people, they will find much more satisfaction and meaning in the former.



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Max Brantley

More by Warwick Sabin

  • Helena's disappearing buildings

    Preservationists hope to slow demolitions.
    • Mar 22, 2007
  • Trailers headed to Dumas

    Gov. Mike Beebe issued the following statement earlier today: Although this decision by FEMA to deny emergency funds to Desha County defies common sense, Arkansas will take care of its own people.
    • Mar 9, 2007
  • Youth Ranch robbed, vandalized

    According to a press release we just received: The Donald W. Reynolds Campus of the Arkansas Sheriff’s Youth Ranches (The Ranch) located near Fort Smith was vandalized overnight Thursday.  Items stolen during the break-in included all of the children’s saddles, food, tools and supplies from The Ranch’s carpentry shop and all equipment from its auto shop.  An investigation is underway with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office.
    • Mar 9, 2007
  • More »

Most Shared

Latest in Warwick Sabin

  • Trickle-up theory

    Through thick and thin, there has always been one group of dedicated Americans whose support for President George W. Bush has been unwavering: The wealthy.
    • Mar 8, 2007
  • Time to go

    Tough questions face us in Iraq and it's time to confront them directly.
    • Mar 1, 2007
  • Plugged in

    One reason why the South remained solidly Democratic during the mid-20th century was the enduring gratitude to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who brought electricity to the poor, rural parts of the region. According to one historical account, “Althou
    • Feb 22, 2007
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Logoly State Park dedicates new visitors center

Logoly State Park dedicates new visitors center

Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.

Event Calendar

« »


2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Viewed

  • Arkansas 2016: the microclimate election

    In the lead-up to the past four Arkansas election cycles, the forecast has been a fairly simple one: strong winds blowing in the GOP direction.
  • The big loser

    So now the big crybaby says he's losing because his opponent is crooked and the referees are blind.
  • Trumped in Arkansas

    After two solid debates and the release of a video and corroborating testimony that further confirmed the misogyny of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is favored to win the presidential election Nov. 8

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: The big loser

    • Here's some more information for the investigator from the Enquirer. It's a confession from somebody…

    • on October 21, 2016
  • Re: The big loser

    • Nobody here but you said anything bad about Shelton. Nothing that happened to her was…

    • on October 21, 2016
  • Re: The big loser

    • P.S. - To show you how incredibly honest I am - I said above that…

    • on October 21, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation