It’s September now, in a midterm year, and election season is going to suck up a lot of national attention over the next two months. Hot election topics will include voter IDs and voter suppression: In August, a federal judge declined to issue an injunction against a North Carolina law that requires voters to show photo IDs; this week a federal trial began of a voter ID law in Texas. The DOJ believes that requiring people to have photo IDs is an unreasonably onerous burden. This is a good time, then, to talk about voter suppression.
By and large, 18-year-olds know nothing and shouldn’t be voting. Let’s suppress them.
Of course you can produce anecdotal evidence to the contrary, evidence of 18-year-olds who don’t know nothing. I’m sure everyone can find a thoughtful 18-year-old who ought to be voting. But if you go to any college campus and talk to the first thousand 18-year-olds you meet, you’ll find five who are qualified to vote and eight hundred who don’t know who Churchill was.
If you don’t believe me, I suggest you actually go to a college campus and talk to some students. A lot of them won’t be able to identify the decade in which the Berlin Wall came down. Many of them will have very firm opinions on politics, but won’t know the difference between the debt and the deficit. A lot of them will think the Civil War happened in the 18th century, and a lot will think the Revolution happened in the 1800s. They won’t be able to summarize five amendments in the Bill of Rights, name five presidents between Lincoln and Truman, or name 15 elements on the periodic table.
It’s not their fault; their schools (and parents) have failed them. Education in this country has gone to hell. Some colleges will do some remedial blank-filling, some won’t, and some kids won’t go to college. But by the time they’re — say — 21, at least they’ll have a little more life under their belts. Some of them will — for instance — have learned what it’s like paying taxes, or paying for groceries.
Of course, the voting age will never be raised. That would require a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds of both houses and three-fourths of the states. And that would likely require 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds voting against their right to vote.
If only we had something to offer them in return. The age of franchise was lowered to 18 because 18-year-olds can be drafted. When the lowering happened, in ’71, 18-year-olds were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. It seemed fair to let people fighting a war help choose the people running the war. Though of course you could argue that people reach physical maturity before mental maturity, which is why you don’t get a driver’s license when you hit puberty.
But anyway: At the moment, in the United States, the legal view is that if you’re old enough to fight, you’re old enough to vote — but you’re not old enough to buy liquor. The drinking age is 21. Why can’t someone buy liquor till he’s 21? Because, say the lawmakers, at 18, you’re not old enough to make mature decisions about issues as weighty as alcohol.
It’s true, the weightiest issue on the minds of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds (by and large) is how to get alcohol. They may not know when the market crashed, but they certainly know which bars will serve them and which delis will sell them beer. (I know what I’m talking about; four years ago I was 20.) So, I propose a trade. Raise the voting age to 21 and lower the drinking age to 18, all in one tidy amendment. Surviving three years of being able to drink legally is a good test of fitness to vote, anyway, and maybe this deal could get a little momentum.
Or maybe, no matter how much a thoughtful electorate might like the voting age raised, they won’t accept the drinking age being lowered. After all, drinking is serious business. We don’t want people who aren’t supposed to drink drinking. That’s why you can’t do it without a photo ID.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.