Why not let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in Oregon?

By Matthew Wadleigh of Beaverton, Oregon. Matthew is a Portland State senior who has called Oregon home for 24 years.

Of the many issues involved in the Oregon Secretary of State election, one that has gotten not nearly enough screen time is the future of our incoming and young electorate. Millennials like myself, and Generation Z voters or voters to be, are entering adulthood in a world where our high schools do not prepare us for citizenship. Meanwhile our college degrees, no matter the subject, are not a guarantee of basic economic stability. This is why, when Brad Avakian's facebook page shared his youth-vote plan recently, I jumped at the chance to read it in full.

The plan, which provides all youth in high school with a symbolic vote that would be tallied, reported, but not counted towards the official results of Oregon elections, is designed to teach youth “The process and importance of civic engagement and participation”. Now I am all for most any proposal that includes the return of civic and vocational education to our schools, but I do have a problem with this youth-vote proposal. It doesn't increase the agency, in It's philosophical or sociological sense, of the future electorate. What would?

Actually letting them vote.

Currently, Oregon's voting age is set at 18 by Article II Section two of the Oregon Constitution, which matches the forced upper ceiling for voting age in the United States set by the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution; however, there is no provision in either the Oregon or US Constitutions that would prevent the State from promoting a younger voting age in any elections should a change be proposed and ratified through the proper legal process. Such a change would be a tall order given the process such a proposal would have to go through, yet regardless of how long it might take, we cannot let that hold us from taking steps towards correcting the moral issue of student disenfranchisement.

Juniors and Seniors at our High Schools are trusted to use our highways and roads, yet have no say in how those roads get funded or laid out nor who can drive on them. They pay taxes on any income they might have should they choose or need to work, with no say how those taxes are allocated. They can be tried as adults, and we expect them to behave like adults sooner and sooner in their lives. Most of all they do all of this while being expected to participate in an education system that is failing them without any input on how that system is run.

Those skeptical of this idea have a few concerns, as they rightly should. Those concerns being, among others, that high school students do not have the prerequisite level of rationality or maturity to vote, and that students have inherent vulnerabilities that make them unable to self express their agency. That being said, last I checked adults did not have to pass any tests to register to vote; and the latter criticism seems to fall away when we remember that the same reasoning was used in attempt to deny women and people of color the right to vote.

I readily acknowledge that not all Juniors or Seniors would be ready to vote, but it would be their own choice to exercise their right to vote or not just as adults do. If Avakian or anyone else truly cares about what Oregon students have to say, they should be prepared to follow through and give those students an actual vote to match their current level of civic responsibility.

guest column

connect with blueoregon