A Case For Giving 16-Year-Olds The Vote After the nationwide "March For Our Lives" demonstrations, and the public discourse that followed, NPR's Michel Martin reflects on the proposal to give teens a say at the ballot box.
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A Case For Giving 16-Year-Olds The Vote

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A Case For Giving 16-Year-Olds The Vote

A Case For Giving 16-Year-Olds The Vote

A Case For Giving 16-Year-Olds The Vote

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After the nationwide "March For Our Lives" demonstrations, and the public discourse that followed, NPR's Michel Martin reflects on the proposal to give teens a say at the ballot box.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, it was a week ago today that hundreds of thousands of kids and teens, along with parents and supporters, converged to express their hurt and rage at the murders of friends and classmates. They were people from middle and upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Parkland, Fla., and Newtown, Conn., who survived shocking spasms of violence that drew the world's attention. And there were kids from very different neighborhoods who spoke of learning to hit the floor before they learned how to read, only to realize, or at least to believe, that few care that they lived that way.

What brought them all together, of course, was gun violence and the desire for change. It was called the March for Our Lives. There were actually hundreds of marches, but the Washington, D.C., gathering drew speakers you might recognize - David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez among others. As you probably also know by now, reactions to what they had to say tended to fall into two camps. People who agreed with the teens, applauded them as eloquent, profound, mature beyond their years, and there were people who didn't like what they had to say, some of whom then felt the need to attack them as grandiose, whiny and misinformed.

The fact that people didn't agree with their specific ideas - raising the age to buy a long gun to 21, universal background checks, barring civilians from having military-grade weapons or magazines of more than 10 rounds - that was not a surprise. Policies that affect millions of people are meant to be debated, but the furious personal attacks on the teens - well, that was a bit of a shock, to me, anyway. Some commentators went so far as to attack the teens for their hairstyles, their perceived sexual orientations, their college acceptances. Let's not even repeat the total lies made up about them on social media.

Now, it seems a bit much to talk about the hairstyle of somebody who had to run out of their school on bloodied floors after 17 people were cut to shreds there, but there you go. I guess conversations about anything difficult in this country have gotten like that. So in the spirit of trying to find something both sides might be able to agree on, how about this - let them vote? Lower the voting age to 16 and let these kids - whiny, mature, brilliant, totally clueless, gun owners, gun haters, whatever they are - be part of the conversation for real? If we're going to treat them like adults, hold them to adult standards, expect them to let total strangers trash them when they think they're wrong, debate them without any regard for their feelings, then how about letting them have some of the responsibilities and rights of adults and participate in shaping the world we live in instead of begging others to do it for them?

Now, I can imagine some of the reactions. Some might say, they aren't going to vote. Eighteen to 24-year-olds barely vote now. So what? In a country where only about half the eligible population votes routinely, it's not as though the current voters have covered themselves with glory. Now, some might say teens are too impulsive, too self-centred. They spend too much time on social media, not enough time reading and digging into complex issues.

Really? If teens are mature enough to buy weapons - especially military-grade weapons - then why aren't they mature enough to decide who sits on the county council or in Congress? If 16 and 17-year-old people can be brought up on criminal charges as adults, as they can be in most states, then why can't 16 and 17-year-old people be eligible to serve on juries and sit in judgment of those crimes? And if you think this is a ploy to pad the liberal vote, let's not forget that most young, white voters went for Trump. It seems highly likely that plenty of 16-year-old conservatives and gun owners would find their way to the polls too.

Let's get real. Decisions about who gets to vote in this country have always been less about fundamental human worth and more about prejudice and power. I was reminded of this when I read Elaine Weiss's fascinating book, "The Woman's Hour," about why it took until 1920 for half the population - i.e., women - to get the right to vote. And that came after a bitter battle with, remarkably, many of the same elements we see today - vicious personal attacks, huge sums of money changing hands, dire consequences predicted.

Eighteen-year-olds got the vote in 1971 in large part because of the Vietnam War. The feeling was that if these citizens were old enough to fight and die in Vietnam that they should be part of the conversation about what put them there. Well, teenagers today are dying, and they are fighting. How about letting them fight where it matters - at the ballot box?

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