I am struck by the fact that as recently as 47 years ago — within my lifetime — the franchise was restricted to those 21 years of age and older.
On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended the right to vote to those 18 years and older. Although this was a decades-old proposal, the Vietnam War was the catalyst that finally made it a reality.
At 18, young men were drafted into an unpopular war led by politicians who were comfortably unaccountable to those who bled for their policy mistakes. Proponents of lowering the voting age criticized this hypocrisy: “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”
When I turned 18, I could be drafted into the armed forces, legally drink alcohol, get married, get a driver’s license, and enter the workforce. Yet I did not have a voice in deciding who my elected officials were, nor was I eligible to vote in referenda and ballot initiatives. I could pay taxes and die for my country, but I was deemed too immature to vote.
The lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” brilliantly highlighted this:
“Well, I called my congressman / And he said, quote: ‘I’d like to help you son / But you’re too young to vote’ / Sometimes I wonder what I’m-a gonna do / But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”
The “cure” was the 26th Amendment.
Just as the 15th and 19th amendments to the Constitution afforded people of color and women the right to vote, the 26th provided young adults the opportunity to weigh in on matters of public policy that would affect them for years. The intent was to prevent one generation from imposing a burden — war, debt, etc. — on those that followed without their concurrence. It was yet another shining example of the “American Experiment,” and a giant step in the process of expanding freedom to all.
Sadly, the 26th Amendment has not yet reached its full promise. Young voters did not flock to the ballot box in the numbers that the authors of the 26th had hoped. The end of the Vietnam War and elimination of the draft removed the focus and immediate urgency of voting; it was no longer a “life or death” issue for many.
This is also due, in no small measure, to the fact that the United States historically has had abysmal voter participation rates.
In the 2016 presidential election, only 55 percent of eligible Americans cast ballots, and the winning candidate garnered only 46 percent of these votes.
That means just over 26 percent of the American voting population decided that we needed to “Make America Great Again”; many more voted against this jingoism. More than 44 percent of those eligible to vote, by wit of their abdication of their civic responsibilities, cast “de facto” votes for the winner. Choosing not to vote is, of and by itself, voting.
To discern the power of the ballot, you need look no further than the actions of some to deny Americans this fundamental right. Voter suppression is real and has been manifested in both word and deed.
The purging of voter rolls in Ohio and the attempted closure of polling stations in Georgia are only the most egregious examples of voter suppression. These actions have been playing out in a multitude of venues across the country. It demonstrates the fear of one party that winning elections is predicated solely on inciting the basest impulses of a narrow minority, not appealing to the broader electorate.
Campaign rhetoric that tries to leverage a handful of incidents of ineligible people voting into an indictment of our electoral system is a blatant attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections themselves. Arguing against the restoration of voting rights to those convicted of felonies who have served their sentences and are now trying to re-integrate into society is mean-spirited. It is also subtly racist given the disproportionate number of black Americans in U.S. prisons. This is the language of tyranny and oppression, not liberty and freedom.
However, these “dirty tricks” by unscrupulous political operatives pale beside the truly pernicious threat to our democratic freedoms: not voting.
For years, those who didn’t participate in the electoral process excused their choices by claiming their vote did not count. The closeness of special elections since 2016, not to mention the “Hanging Chad” fiasco in the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election, give the lie to that specious argument.
Ours is a participatory democracy; you have to show up to make it work. Not registering to vote and/or not casting a ballot is the best method of killing it. Register to vote. If necessary, file for absentee ballots, complete and mail them. You have to live with the results and don’t get to complain if you didn’t “step up.”
Advocating to lower the voting age was something my generation got right; failure to fully exercise the franchise was our mistake. That is how we got here.
Wisdom is learning from the mistakes of other; I hope today’s Hoyas learn from ours.
Raymond Dillon graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. He is an opinion contributor to The Hoya.