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Pimples at the polls: Argentina tries to lower voting age to 16

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Martin Acosta/Reuters

(Read caption) Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (front, r.) and her Irish counterpart, Michael D. Higgins, shake hands at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, Oct. 11.

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Should the United States lower its voting age to 16 or 17? Argentina is the latest nation on track to do so.

The Senate of the South American nation voted this week to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to cast ballots at the polls, generating outcry from political opponents of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is widely supported by a growing youth movement, which we reported about here. Critics say that, in appealing to youths, Ms. Kirchner is trying to bolster her party ahead of October 2013 legislative elections.

The president’s supporters, however, say the goal is to strengthen democracy. “It is young people who create the counterculture, who can see reality from another point of view, and who question all of their society’s ideas and prejudices,” Elena Corregido, a ruling party senator and co-author of the bill, told the radio show "The World." “So we by no means think that they’ll be pulled along like cattle to the market.”

If the bill, which now goes to the lower house, becomes law, Argentina would join Brazil, Nicaragua, and Ecuador in Latin America, as well as Austria, in setting 16 as the minimum voting age. The vast majority of countries in the world today, as seen in this chart of voter ages globally, have placed the minimum voting age at 18. (In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, citizens have to wait until they’re 21 to cast a ballot.)

Those against the move in Argentina do not just cite unfair politics. In opinion pieces and comments to the local media, critics are arguing that youths are too easily manipulated and not sufficiently educated or mature enough to participate in a task as important as electing a nation’s president.

Should US follow suit?

It’s some of the same criticism that surfaces in the debate in the US, writes Susan Maas for Minnesota Public Radio. Some argue that “17-year-olds will just vote the way their parents do,” she writes, or that “they're just not old enough, not experienced enough, to make responsible decisions at the polling place.”

But Ms. Maas argues for lowering restrictions on voting. “In terms of emotional maturity, yes, many teens are far from fully developed. But in terms of intellectual and cognitive maturity – the kind that's called for in the ballot box – most 17-year-olds are ready. Their ability to reason is every bit as advanced as an 18- or 19-year-old's. And from a practical standpoint, they're in a much better position to cast that first vote.”

This same debate, though much more intense, percolated the last time the voter age was lowered, in 1971 when the 26th amendment was ratified and the American voting age was changed from 21 to 18, says Jenny Diamond Cheng, a law lecturer at Vanderbilt University who did her doctoral dissertation on the political debates leading up to the constitutional amendment.

The question to lower the age or not languished for decades, from the time the draft age was lowered to 18 in 1942. But by 1971, a critical mass of youths from the baby boomer generation had reached their teens and were out in the streets protesting the Vietnam War. The slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” captured the imagination. 

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That kind of political mass is not there today, says Ms. Cheng, who says the US would be better off reducing barriers to the young and mobile 18-to-21 set. She also says she worries about the unintended consequences of lowering the voting age, which could inadvertently lower the ages for things such as obligatory child support. “I think 16 year-olds would be as good of voters as anyone else,” she says. “But before lowering the voting age, it is really worth thinking through if we are ready for these folks to be treated as legal adults in other ways as well.”

While American 18-to-21-year olds voted in droves when they were first granted the right to vote, in all subsequent elections their turnout has been among the lowest. In Argentina, despite calls of political manipulation, analysts say their new right to vote would be unlikely to tip the polls. They would represent about 1.4 million voters; about 23 million voted in the last election. Also the vote is mandatory in Argentina but it wouldn't be for those under 18. Still, like youths the world over, Argentine youths would likely side with the left, a clear gain for Kirchner.

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