Suffrage: Right or Privilege?

I just read a tongue-in-cheek article discussing the possibility of having a cutoff age for voting. “Sorry, grandpa, you get to eat at the kiddy table again!” I won’t go into details, but surprisingly some of the arguments for this radical change might appeal to progressives, even those who would end up losing their right to vote. This issue of senior citizens’ suffrage may be increasingly relevant as our country ages. They tend to vote for a time long past and on a basis no longer relevant to our lives. Some are no doubt open to change but not very many. An example of this phenomenon from abroad was the Brexit vote that was driven principally by nostalgic older citizens.

However, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is unambiguous. It absolutely forbids restricting the right to vote for citizens who are at least 18 years of age. Evidently toying with the lower age limit is acceptable, but senior citizen suffrage is untouchable without a new amendment.

womens-suffrage-movement-11-638Actually, I can’t think of a justification for the current federal lower age limit that wasn’t once used as a specious argument against women’s suffrage. Indeed, I think it is unlikely that the proportion of 16 year-olds, for example, who can make reasonable voting choices is less than is true for 80 year-olds. How many teenagers do you think have Alzheimer’s?

How about, as a minimum, extending representation to anyone who can be taxed? The lower limit used to be 21. It was lowered to 18 principally based on the argument that if you are old enough to fight and die for your country then you must be old enough to vote. Taxation without representation is a similar issue. If you are old enough to contribute your hard-earned money to fund our government, then you must be old enough to have a say in its disposal.

56d50c868bc59.imageBut I have a completely opposite thought that directly conflicts with this idea of suffrage as an unconstrained right of citizenship. This political season makes me think more and more positively that suffrage is a privilege to be earned, like a driver’s license. Letting the current set of crazies run amok in our Presidential election is like permitting drunk drivers to endanger us all on the roads. Perhaps demonstrating knowledge of our history, political system and Constitution should be a requirement. If we add questions concerning issues of the day and candidates, maybe we should have to renew this license on a regular basis. And also, if we could ever develop a reliable IQ test – there aren’t any today – a minimum intelligence makes much more sense than either a maximum or minimum age. This is serious business; it affects all of our lives; why not treat it seriously?

This may seem like idle, elitist frivolity, but don’t be so sure. If our current system increasingly regurgitates candidates such as we are now seeing, revolutionary remedies will become less unthinkable. Changes like this face daunting obstacles, but then so did others we have conquered before, like extirpating slavery from our body politic.