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April 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, April 02, 2004

Teens want the right to vote Teens want the right to vote (April 02, 2004)

Legislator's bill is backed by local minors

By Preeti Piplani and Lanvy Nguyen

About one month ago, State Sen. John Vasconcellos (D- San Jose) proposed legislation to lower the voting age to 14 and give teenagers a fractional vote.

According to Vasconcellos' plan, by 2006, 14- and 15-year-olds will each have a quarter vote, while 16- and 17-year-olds will have half a vote. This legislation marks a significant investment in engaging California's youth in the electoral process.

Throughout history, the vote has proven to be one of the essential elements that enables a democratic society to function as best as it can. In 1971, the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, in response to society's growing demand for civic engagement by youth. Eighteen-year-olds who were eligible for the draft were frustrated that they could be sent to war, but couldn't vote for their elected representatives.

Democracy is based on government by the people. Each Election Day, voters determine how our government is run, who is elected and how we will deal with issues of importance. These decisions affect all citizens, not just adult voters. Teens' lives are influenced on every level by the decisions of older voters.

At age 14, teens can enter the work force. By doing so, teens are required to follow federal and state tax and employment laws. Working teens are then legally responsible for complying with laws that were created and passed without ever giving teens the opportunity to share their opinions or cast ballots.

At age 16, California teens can apply for a state driver's license. Like adults, these teens must follow the rules of the road and take precautions in driving. Since teen drivers share the roads, they should share the responsibilities and privileges by voting on laws that affect teen drivers.

Lowering the voter age would help to increase voter turnout among young people. Children and teens would be more likely to become voting adults if there were a greater emphasis placed on the importance of voting at a younger age. Teachers could reaffirm these values by incorporating curriculum based on election issues. Parents could begin making voting a family event, where children and preteens could observe their parents and older siblings as they cast their ballots.

Vasconcellos' legislation, however, is not perfect. By granting teens a fractional vote, he is indirectly saying that young people really count for just a quarter or half of a person. While this message might not initially appear malicious, it does send a powerful message to teens. The opinions of teens are valuable and should count for whole opinions, not quarter- or half-baked opinions. Perhaps Vasconcellos' plan could be implemented on a trial basis before a permanent amendment is made to the state constitution.

At age 14, many teens' main concerns include school, family, and themselves. Seven hours of their days are spent at school where they sit and absorb information that they aren't sure whether they'll ever use again. Then they go home and spend more time trying to access that information in order to complete their homework.

On weekends, many teens go to the movies with some buddies, hang out with family or vegetate in front of a TV and immerse themselves into someone else's drama. It might seem that such teens do not have the time or motivation to research election issues or care about the rest of the world and contemplate the issues of the day. If all teens were given the right to vote, would they care or be informed enough to cast important votes?

While it's possible that many teens may not be motivated or informed enough to vote, low voter turnout among American adults points to a greater problem of apathy that is not limited to youth.

Some might argue that, even if some teens are growing in power, voice and knowledge, the vast majority of us are still slaves to TV, video games, sports, school or pop culture, and are spending these precious early years of our lives finding our own identity. These same people argue that giving the vote to a generation of hormonal, confused, self-centered, easily influenced, relatively irresponsible, rebellious and naive citizens might not do much good for society.

However, many teenagers have broken free of this stereotype and become civically active. For example, both authors of this article are members of the City of Mountain View's Youth Advisory Group, through which we represent Mountain View's teen community and advise decision-makers about issues that affect teens.

In addition, countless teens work to show that they actually care what happens in the bigger picture, not just in their own lives. For example, last year, then-Gov. Gray Davis proposed a budget which many saw as detrimental to several Bay Area public schools. Hundreds of high school students educated themselves about the issue and gathered in Sacramento to protest his proposal. The students spent almost a whole day making posters, rallying and waiting for just one legislator to hear their voices about the budget.

This legislation marks only the beginning of a movement to engage youth in the electoral process. If California wants for a better future, it must begin by empowering its youth and giving them the right to vote. Knowledge is power, and only when people become informed do they make good decisions.

Preeti Piplani is a senior and Lanvy Nguyen is a sophomore at Los Altos High School.

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