Teenage Vote: More to be Gained than Lost
Reducing Voting Age Will Increase Political Interest
The issue has promoted no bitter debates, no bloody riots, not even a noisey crusade. President Eisenhower's proposal for amending the Constitution to lower the voting age to 18 is favored generally by politicians of both parties, but present voters and potential voters seems to be unexcited about the whole affair.
Traditionally the suffrage line has been drawn arbitrarily at age 21 as the reasonable demarcation between adolescence and adulthood. Many political observers now maintain that 18 rather than 21 is a more reasonable dividing point, at least as far as political participation is concerned. As publicity increases no doubt the sentimental arguments "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" will gain much popular supper. But University faculty members who have long studied various aspects of political behavior, generally offer more incisive arguments in favor of extending the suffrage.
At issue is not whether the new young voters will affect relative party strength--most observers agree they will not--but whether 18, 19 and 20-year-old people are mature enough to cast their ballots wisely.
Advocates assert that the extention will positively benefit the democratic process by (1) getting the American people first interested in political questions when they are at their height of intellectual activity, and (2) using increased college political activity as a bridge over which more qualified people will enter politics, full time and part time.
A recent New York Times poll reveals that, of those Senators reached, 45 favored lowering the age qualification, 11 opposed it and 30 were undecided. The same poll showed 29 state governors for, 7 against, and 12 undecided. Senatorial supporters include William F. Knowland (R-Cal), Wayne Morse (Ind-Oregon), Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn), Homer Ferguson (R-Mich) and Francis Case (R.S.D.). The political views of those particular gentlemen are frequently in conflict.
A bill to amend the Constitution has been reported favorably by the Sonata Judiciary Committee and is expected to reach a floor vote within the next few weeks. Senator John F. Kennedy '40 (D-Mass) reports that to date there seems to be little interest in this legislation in Washington. Kennedy told the CRIMSON that he would prefer several states to take the initiative and try voting at 18 before a Federal amendment is attempted. He added, however, "When the amendment is presented for vote on the floor of the Senate, I will vote for it."
Senator Leverett Saltonstall '14 (R-Mass) also said he would "prefer to leave voting questions up to the states." Saltonstall indicated to the CRIMSON that he was still undecided on how he will vote on the issue. "Very frankly, I want to hear the debate." He added, "Odds are that the amendment will go through the Senate."
Georgia is the only state to allow 18 year olds the vote. It has done so since 1943 and finds the change very satisfactory.
Last month the Mississippi senate killed a proposed amendment to its constitution, arguing that the change would increase the Negro vote. In contrast, Gov. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina and Gov. Christian A. Herter '15 of Massachusetts have recommended that their legislatures start constitutional amending procedures to permit lowering the age. And Adlai Stevenson, when he was running for the Illinois Governorship in 1948, also advocated the 18 year old vote.
The CRIMSON recently polled 152 College students. Most of these students admitted they haven't given muck thought to the question. Eighty-two favored lowering the voting age, 70 were opposed. Of the 82 in favor of the change, 52 thought that Congress was right in taking the initiative 30 thought the states should not individually. If given the vote, 80 said they would vote Democratic in national elections, 62 leaned toward the Republicans, and 10 were undecided.
3 Suffrage Extentions
Most political pressure groups, like the League of Women Voters, have taken no stand on the issue. Veterans organizations seem generally to favor a Constitutional amendment, but they have not begun active tub-thumping as yet. Remarkable for its absence is the militancy that marked three previous extensions of suffrage in the United States.
The first important suffrage extention was to eliminate property holding and taxpaying qualifications for manhood suffrage. Although the American Revolution was followed by a lowering of property qualifications it wasn't until the rise of Jacksonian democracy that such qualifications were largely swept away and with them much of the power of the early American aristocracy.
Fear of the propertyless masses in eastern cities prompted arguments like the following which was expressed at the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837.
"But, Sir, what does the delegate propose? To place the vicious vagrant, the wandering Arabs, the Tartar hordes of our large cities on the level with the virtuous and good man? . . . These Arabs steeped in crime and vice, to be placed on a level with industrious population is insulting and degrading to the community. . . . I hold up my hands against a proceeding which confers on the idle, vicious, degraded vagabond a right at the expense of the poor and industrious portion of the commonwealth."
Prior to the Civil War the question of Negro suffrage was debated and in most states settled against the Negro. At the time of the Civil War only five states had no color qualification on the books: Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont; but in practice unhindered Negro suffrage was limited to Maine.
President Lincoln and Johnson did not include Negro suffrage in their Reconstruction schemes. It was the so-called radical group in Congress, who wanted to insure Union party control of southern states who argued most heatedly for Negro suffrage. In 1870 the Fifteenth amendment was adopted stating: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude."
Eight Reconstruction years of corrupt southern rule by a combination of Negroes and carpetbaggers was followed by a bloody reestablishment of control by southern whites. Since that time the Supreme Court has generally attempted, through its rulings, to insure the Negroes the vote in practice that is their's on paper.
The most recent extention of the vote was in 1920 with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment granting woman suffrage. The earliest rumblings of the suffragette crusade were closely associated with the abolition movement. Woman's lot was compared to that of the slave; the parallel drawn was not unfounded since legal rights of married women were closer to the slave's than to those of free white men.
Opponents of giving women the vote argued basically that "woman's place is in the home." Perhaps typical of the arguments, though couched in the language of a southern gentleman, are the words of Senator Joseph E. Brown of Georgia who said in 1884 that woman suffrage "would be a great cruelty to a much larger number of the cultivated, refined, delicate and lovely women of this country who seek no such distinction, who would enjoy no such privilege, who would with woman-like delicacy shrink from the discharge of any such obligation, and who would sincerely regret that what they consider the folly of the State had imposed upon them any such unpleasant duties.
Close the Saloons
But the fair sex refused to let their apron strings continue to serve as political shackles. In their loud demand for franchisement they promised to clean up government and close down the saloons.
Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote; it did so in 1890. By 1914 then other western states granted suffrage to women. Militancy became the keynote in the 1914 Congressional elections as the suffragette campaign became national in scope.
In 1917 the suffragattes threw picket lines around the White House. Soon many of the demonstrators were arrested for "obstructing traffic." Newspapers and magazines devoted considerable space to these "antics." At their trials the women delivered passionate orations on behalf of liberty and woman suffrage: they also refused to pay their fines "as a matter of principle" and were there upon hustled off to the workhouse. Public sentiment swelled in resentment of the government's suppressing tactics and in sympathy for the women's sacrifices.
At one trial an elderly woman was given a light sentence and the presiding judge urged her to pay the fine rather than go to jail. She responded: "Your Honor, I have a nephew fighting for democracy in France. He is offering his life for his country. I should be ashamed if I did not join these brave women in their fight for democracy in America. I should be proud of the honor to die in prison for the liberty of American women."
After more arrests, hunger strikes, and "Prison Special" tours of the country, in 1919, President Wilson gave in, along with a number of hitherto reluctant Senators, and an amendment passed both Houses by the required two-thirds vote. By 1920 the necessary three-fourths of the states had ratified the amendment which provides that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
Early extentions of suffrage reflected the potent effects of a democratic revolutions in this country. Enfranchising the Negro has decreased discriminatory practices, especially in the South. This effect is not wholly attributable to voting power, education and Congressional and judicial rulings are also involved. As for the consequences of woman suffrage, no comprehensive study has been made, but is it obvious that women have not been successful in singlehandedly cleaning up politics and alcoholism.
The move to lower the age qualification for voting to 18 is not new. In 1943 thirty-one state legislatures entertained the proposal. Only Georgia amended its constitution to effect the change. The successful slogan was "Fight at 18, Vote at 18." Opponents of the measure in Georgia and elsewhere called the scheme a contrivence of northern professors and Communists. Former Governor Talmadge mustered chivalrous concern for innocent young women whom politicians would have a legal right to approach, "Without an introduction," to seek their votes. But Georgia extended the vote and appears happy about the results.
Here at Harvard the "northern professors" interviewed by the CRIMSON are, for the most part, in favor of change. They see many advantages and few disadvantages in prospect.
Need A Challenge
Government Professor John M. Gaus labels one of his reason for approving the extention as "very sentimental and naive" but he honestly feels that "if we are going to take fellows to fight at 13, we had better let them vote too." He dismisses the argument of the immaturity of youth by noting, "Everybody is somewhat immature at every stage of their lives. Exercise of the vote is a very sobering experience."
Gaus alludes to early Massachusetts history when a "surprising number" of teenagers were full-fledged ship captains. "It may be that one thing lost in our lives is the challenge to mature earlier. Young men and women, I find, do rise effectively to challenges."
He adds, "I don't see that a change is critical or that no change will be catastrophic." Early voters will generally vote as their parents vote because of the family's normal association with a certain point of view, but the end of secondary schools education seems to him "a reasonable point of break."
Peter H. Rossi, assistant professor of Sociology, doesn't think there is "terribly much difference in attitudes of political responsibility between those who are 18-20 and those who are 21-25." He notes that the national peak reading period is at the high school level. "There is now a gap of three to four years before a person is involved in making political decisions. By lowering the voting age to 18, we would provide a type of continuity in taking on adult responsibility."
Ressi doesn't agree with the "immaturity" argument. "If maturity were the criterion for using the ballot, we would have to disqualify a large proportion of the older voters."
He believes that lowering the age requirement will provide an opportunity for young people to become involved in politics at a time when they are reading most about it. This could prove a force in cutting down political apathy. On the college campus feverish political activity, Rossi thinks, may interest students in politics sufficiently to bring them into national and local politics after college. This, of course, would be a highly important advantage.
Government Professor V. O. Key, Jr. says he "would be amazed if more than 50 percent" of teenagers would use the ballot if given the opportunity. Statistics over a long period of time indicate that lowest voting participation occurs among the 21-34 age group. Below is a percentile listing of non-participation among different age groups in the last two national elections: