Nelson Mandela, who brought democracy to South Africa 1994, thought everyone over the age of 14 should be allowed to vote. Young people had fought against apartheid with him and he believed they should be able to vote in their new country. He didn’t win that argument and the voting age was set at 18 as it is in the majority of democracies around the world.
But are young people in the United States losing that right? A group of students in North Carolina claim that young people are losing their right to vote because of new voter ID laws passed in several Republican-dominated state legislatures.
According to a New York Times report, under the North Carolina law passed last year, the period for early voting was shortened and same-day registration was eliminated. Beginning in 2016, voters will need to show photo identification, and student ID cards, including those issued by state universities, will not be acceptable. In most instances, neither will an out-of-state driver’s license. In Texas, voters must show a photo ID. A state handgun license qualifies, but a state university identification card does not. Other states have suggested even more restrictive laws.
The history of voting in the United States has been a history of letting more and more citizens vote. The men who wrote the constitution thought voters should be successful men who had experience as farmers or businessmen. Voters should be at least 21 years old and own property. Servants and slaves could not vote and neither could women. During the first few years of the new country, only about half of all white men were allowed to vote in some states.
No one is sure why 21 was chosen as the time when a man became an adult. During the middle ages in England, a young man could become a knight at the age of 21, because he had gained his full strength and could wear heavy armor. Gradually that age was accepted as an appropriate time for taking on adult responsibilities, including voting.
Slowly and painfully the right to vote was extended to men who did not own property, to former slaves and even to women. Each extension was gained after a long, hard battle. For more than a hundred years it looked as though democracy was winning and more and more people were given voting rights. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, allowing voting to young people across the country.
The history of the twentieth century was a history of broadening people’s rights to vote, but the twenty-first century has reversed the trend. Instead of taking advantage of an infrastructure that makes it easier for people to vote—voting machines that count votes automatically, mail delivery that is safe and secure, ballots that are accessible to people with disabilities—some jurisdictions are intent on decreasing voting rather than expanding it.
How much does this have to do with the increasing inequality in our society? Making voting difficult is one way to stifle
democracy. Lines like the ones that have appeared in recent elections in states such as Florida and Ohio discourage voting, so do unreasonable voter ID laws. Voting is a right, not a privilege to be doled out only to people who can be counted on tovote to support the privileges of those who hold power. Every citizen who cares about the future of America should support the right of all citizens to vote no matter which candidates or parties they are supporting. That’s what democracy is all about.