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Should We Take Away the Voting Rights of 18 Year Olds?

President Nixon is usually denigrated for Watergate, his “enemies list,” even his participation in post-World War II anti-Communist fervor. But there was a blunder committed by the 37th president that far outstrips all his others combined. That was signing the 26th Amendment into law in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.

Lowering the voting age such that all college freshmen, and even many high school seniors, could help choose the Republic’s leaders was undoubtedly one of the dumbest things ever done in this country’s history. We can’t totally blame Nixon, since this misguided movement had been supported earlier by Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson and, of course, practically the entire Congress in Nixon’s time. May they all fry in one of Dante’s lowest circles of Hell for this transgression against political sense.

What is wrong with such young folks voting? Doesn’t democracy work better when the franchise is extended to as many Americans as feasibly possible? And isn’t it true that “old enough to die, old enough to vote?”—as the amendment’s supporters argued during the Vietnam War?

To answer these questions in reverse order: no, no and ARE YOU KIDDING?!. Democracy works when KNOWLEDGEABLE citizens vote, as was recognized as long ago as Plato’s and Aristotle’s time. Can any rational member of the human species watch Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking”—in which he roams the streets of Southern California, interviewing folks who don’t know the vice president’s name, which hemisphere they live in—and possibly think it’s a good idea for these people to be left alone with a voting machine of any kind?

As a college history professor, I can cite examples of 18- and 19-year olds’ ignorance that make the Jaywalkers look like the Founding Fathers. One of my students recently announced that he’d received a draft notice in the mail (can anyone say “Stripes?”). No one in an entire modern world history class this term knew when the American Revolution began. When I queried my classes “what is the approximate size of the U.S. budget for the upcoming fiscal year?” most replies ranged between a few hundred million dollars and a few billion (the actual figure is about $2 and 1/2 trillion). Most of my students thought that the African-American population made up “30 or 40 percent” of the U.S., whereas it’s actually 12.5 percent. Many of my students have written, on tests or papers, that Jesus is worshipped by the Jewish people and that Muhammad lived before Jesus. (Shouldn’t voters know something about the world’s major religions?) And I have had many students who thought that Nazi Germany used nuclear weapons in World War II (in which case wouldn’t we all be goose-stepping and speaking Deutsche?).

My point is not to score cheap points at my students’ expense. (Almost all of them, after all, went to public school in Georgia—the state that ranks 49th in SAT scores—and most of us college professors here have resigned ourselves to the fate of repairing the damage done by secondary school teachers—which might be worth contemplating the next time public school teachers are demanding yet another pay raise.) The point is that we allow such uninformed people to vote! Indeed, we encourage it: MTV’s “Rock the Vote,” P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die.” There’s even an organization, “Youthrights.org,” that demands we lower the voting age to 16! (Just what we need: presidential candidates taking stands on their preferred anti-acne medication.)

Now there is no guarantee that a 30-something voter will be more informed than one just out of high school—but it’s a good bet. As Michael Barone points out in his book Hard America, Soft America, this nation’s 18-year olds are, on average, coddled, spoiled and ignorant; but by the time they hit their third decade, most of them are extremely competent and productive (thanks to good colleges, the business world or the military).

So I won’t go as far as my wife, who cites Barone to advocate 30 as the minimum voting age. I’ll settle for raising it to 20—with a major caveat, addressing the “old enough to die, old enough to vote “ argument. The late science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in his book Starship Troopers (try to pretend you’ve never seen the horrible movie, Denise Richards notwithstanding), posited a futuristic world government which worked extremely well because of one thing: only those who had proved their dedication to the collective good, by volunteering for the military, could vote. So let’s set up a similar system, with both a military and civil volunteer component (in the latter those opposed to warfare could help with international disaster relief, for example), requiring a two-year minimum stint. Thus one could join right out of high school, at 18, and then when the term of service was up at 20 the right to vote would follow. Two years in such an environment would not only demonstrate the individual’s seriousness about citizenship, it would almost undoubtedly educate them beyond the level of the modern Jaywalker or college undergrad.

If that smacks too much of social engineering, let’s at least institute a qualifying quiz for voters, of perhaps three questions: 1) what’s the square root of 16? 2) who is your current congressional representative? 3) what part of the U.S. is now being referred to as “Jesusland?” Or devise your own questions—but we need some litmus test that demonstrates the prospective voter knows SOMETHING and has not just been demagogued into believing that the GOP wishes to starve senior citizens or that the Democrats want Bin Ladin to move into the Oval Office.

We dodged a bullet in this election, when the ignorant youth masses turned out in record numbers (51 percent of the 18-29 year olds voted; figures for subslice of that pie that includes only 18-20 years olds is unavailable), which broke for Kerry by about 10 points. Only the fact that most other age groups voted in even larger numbers drowned out the callow masses’ otherwise influential cluelessness. One would like to think that even Democrats “win at any price” desperation stops just short of encouraging Know Nothings to support them. So I say: dock their vote! Repeal the 26th Amendment before President P. Diddy is sworn in.