Before we destroy their future, let's give them the right to vote

Before we destroy their future, let's give them the right to vote
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For decades, adults have failed to protect young people. Gun violence, climate chaos and crippling debt plague our youth. Sunrise’s youth led movement to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs in the process is just one part of the growing wave of young people taking hold of our political system. Young people are no longer waiting — they’re acting.

America’s youth are doing more to use their voice and activism than many in our country who have been eligible to vote for decades, and they deserve to have this most fundamental say in decisions that directly affect them. We have just 11 years to act on climate change, and the leaders we elect into office over the next few years will make critical decisions that impact youth more than anyone else.

It’s immoral to allow older generations to make decisions that destroy our planet and young people’s futures without giving them the political power to help change the current path. These impacts aren’t generations away. High schoolers are facing the impacts from climate change right now. Let's not forget how many students watched their homes burn during the historic wildfires last fall, and the millions that have grown up without access to clean water or clean air.

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That’s why we should act now to lower the voting age. We are already seeing some efforts in California, with Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 (Evan Low) passing the state Assembly with bipartisan support and similar efforts in states like Oregon.

At a national level, Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThese 3 women are defining the race to unseat Trump Ocasio-Cortez mourns Cummings: 'A devastating loss for our country' Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings MORE (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment to lower the voting age to 16. This is part of a growing movement that recognizes that young people have made enormous impacts on our politics and have more than earned their seat at the table. It’s been almost 50 years since we’ve expanded the vote, and it’s long-past time to give young people a voice. Their immediate future is at risk — not generations from now, but decades.

The idea that young people aren’t interested in politics must be dispelled — in fact, they’re more organized, politically engaged, and educated on the issues than most other voting populations. This has only become more true since the 2018 midterms, when young people drove voter turnout increases. Nearly 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans reported voting in 2018 — a 16 percent spike from 2014, when only 20 percent reported heading to the polls.

Still, the fact that only 53.4 percent of eligible Americans turned out to vote in 2018 (and it was the highest turnout of any midterm in a century) shows that our country’s democracy is broken. We need to turn this around — and research shows that the earlier in life a person votes and builds a relationship with the political process, the more likely they are to make it a lifelong habit. Most people’s foray into politics is in their high school government class during senior year — a time when they’re supposed to be learning life’s best practices, and are still connected to their school, home, and community. 

Instead, we’re catching teens during a time of transition. With every new life change that piles on an 18-year-old’s list — moving away from home, starting college, entering the workforce — the decision to go get a ballot and find out how and where to vote becomes harder.

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It’s egregious that a 17-year-old can sign up to serve their country and put their life on the line, but not have a say in the way it’s run. Even in places where they’re invited to vote in any capacity, it’s to weigh in on issues like school board races — hardly the only issue affecting them. They’re about to feel the squeeze of housing and higher education costs for the first time. And, when it comes to environmental policies that impact the health of their communities, many have been dealing with this their whole lives.

Some states have already taken important steps to promote youth engagement. California is one of eleven states allowing 16-year-olds to preregister to vote. But there’s so much more we can do to promote youth voter participation. That begins with showing the value of their voice to our democracy.

Young activists are already on the frontlines of our country’s most pressing issues, because they know they’re disproportionately impacted by every one of their lawmaker’s actions (and lack thereof). It’s why they’re pushing for a Green New Deal, spurring bipartisan momentum on gun control, fighting against debilitating student debt, and elevating climate change as a top-tier issue in the 2020 election cycle. They’ve already changed the game, because they know they have to: their futures are literally at stake.

We have the chance to change what’s possible — with climate action, the shape of the electorate, and the future of our political system as a whole. Let’s seize this opportunity. Before we destroy their future, let’s give young people the right to vote. Our young people hold the keys to getting results, because they won’t sit around and wait for incremental progress. They can’t afford to.

Mary Creasman is CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters.

Varshini Prakash is co-founder of Sunrise, a movement of young people uniting to stop the climate crisis.