Today we travel to a future where voting rights are extended to lots more people in the United States including non-citizens, 16-year-olds, and convicted felons.
- Dr. Ron Hayduk — professor of political science at San Francisco State University, and author of Democracy for All
- Ashawn Dabney-Small — candidate for Boston City Council District 3 and Vice President for the National Youth Rights Association
- Dr. Sylvia Kritzinger — a professor at the University of Vienna
- Jennifer Taylor — senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative.
- What Does the Constitution Actually Say About Voting Rights?
- Elections Clause
- The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787–1828
- National General Election VEP Turnout Rates, 1789-Present
- Millions of Americans can’t vote for president because of where they live
- Thousands Lose Right to Vote Under ‘Incompetence’ Laws
- Who Can and Can’t Vote in U.S. Elections
- Why Non-Citizens Should Be Allowed to Vote
- Noncitizen Voting Rights in the United States
- Maryland city approves letting non-citizens vote in local elections
- Takoma Park stands by non-U.S. citizen voting law
- The Long, Strange History of Non-Citizen Voting
- In 2013 the supreme court gutted voting rights – how has it changed the US?
- Trump Administration Nearly Doubles Cost to Apply to Become a U.S. Citizen
- High cost of naturalization prevents low-income immigrants from becoming citizens, Stanford study finds
- Why Don’t Immigrants Apply for Citizenship?
- Divided Loyalty? Political participation and identity of dual citizens in Switzerland
- The Development of Dual Loyalties: Immigrants’ Integration to Canadian Regional Dynamics
- Non-citizens can’t vote in Florida. So why is this group trying to ban it…again?
- Florida Amendment 1: The citizenship voting measure that isn’t anything
- Florida’s proposed Amendment 1 would change nothing. Was it even intended to?
- ‘Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote’: The 26th Amendment’s Mixed Legacy
- How the Vietnam War Draft Spurred the Fight for Lowering the Legal Voting Age
- Rep. Speier Wants 14-Year-Olds to Vote
- Rep. Pressley Introduces Amendment to Lower Voting Age
- What happens when the voting age is lowered to 16? A decade of evidence from Austria
- Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945
- Accounting for the Child in the Transmission of Party Identification.
- Do younger generations care more about global warming?
- National Youth Rights Association
- Voting Rights and Felony Disenfranchisement
- Unlocking The Vote In Jails
- Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer
- A Brief History of Felon Disenfranchisement and Prison Gerrymanders
- Race, Voting, and a Gaping Loophole: A Critical Look at the 14th Amendment
- Crimes of Moral Turpitude in Alabama
- Felony Voting Rights Restoration in Alabama
- Final tally: Group says 67,000 felons registered in Florida after Amendment 4
- Richardson v. Ramirez
- The Other Side of Richardson v. Ramirez: A Textual Challenge to Felon Disenfranchisement
- A Look At Voter Suppression Tactics Ahead Of The Election
- They Did Not Vote in 2016. Why They Plan to Skip the Election Again.
- PNAS Science Sessions: short, in-depth conversations with the world’s top scientific researchers. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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Flash Forward is hosted by Rose Eveleth and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. The voices from the future this episode were provided by
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
transcript by Emily White @ The Wordary
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S6E15 – “VOTES FOR ALL!”
[Flash Forward intro music – “Whispering Through” by Asura, an electronic, rhythm-heavy piece]
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. I’ve wrested control from the AI version of myself that hosted last time we had an episode, and I’m here, it’s me, the biological version; or so you think.
Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible – or not so possible – future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
This episode we’re starting in the year 2028.
FICTION SKETCH BEGINS
[cheesy, upbeat synth music]
Hi, I’m a celebrity! You might recognize me from shows like Law and Order in Space, America’s Got Singing, and the hit drama Boys. But today I’m here to talk to you about something way more important than the way my career is teetering on the edge of sustainability. Today, I’m here to talk to you about VOTING.
That’s right, VOTING! Your civic duty, your great American right, the way you can shape the future. And this year, voting is easier than ever. As long as you’re over 16 and live in the United States, you can vote! It’s that simple.
Now, you might be wondering, “Well wait a minute, famous dude, I couldn’t vote last time. I’m not a citizen, or I have a felony.” Well, I’m here to tell you that this year, it doesn’t matter! I too am not a citizen, and I too have a felony, and this year, I GET TO VOTE! Thanks to the 31st Amendment, voting is now open to anybody over 16 who lives here in the United States. That’s it. It’s that simple!
Don’t you want to have a say in picking our next leader? I know I do. So join me. Get to the polls and VOTE!
FICTION SKETCH END
As you probably know, there is a big election here in the United States next week. If you live in the US you have likely been inundated with messages about candidates, propositions, and just the overall urge to VOTE. And you should, absolutely, vote, if you have the right; not just for the president but also for all of the candidates that are running locally and statewide. But today we are talking about the folks who don’t have that right and what would happen if they did.
Shoutout to listener Aviva Levin who wrote in and inspired this episode, by the way!
So let’s start with a little bit of history, shall we? When the United States was founded, only a tiny sliver of people living in this newly formed country were actually allowed to vote.
In fact, the United States Constitution, as written in 1791, does not include the concept of the “right to vote” anywhere in it. When it talks about voting, it’s always as a procedural process, not as some big picture “right” that people should have. In general, states are the ones who set voting rights, so rules can, and do, vary by state. But in practice, when the country was founded, it was almost exclusively white men who owned land who could vote.
And over time, the propertyless white males were included; fought their way for inclusion.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution ostensibly prevented states from denying the right to vote on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But of course, we know that Black Americans were indeed denied that right in other ways for a long time after that. We’re going to come back to that in a little bit.
In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, after people who were eligible to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War argued that if they could be asked to die for their country, they should probably be allowed to vote.
But even today, there are still lots of people who live in the United States who do not have the right to vote in a presidential election like the one that is about to happen here on November 3rd. In most states, anybody in jail for a felony cannot vote on the 3rd. In many states, even folks out of jail but with a past felony conviction cannot vote on the 3rd. In almost all states, anybody who has been found “mentally incompetent” or of “unsound mind” cannot vote on the 3rd. And in some states, this can include anyone who has been placed under conservatorship.
U.S. citizens living in territories like Puerto Rico and Guam can’t vote for the president on Tuesday, nor can anybody under 18. And the approximately 22 million adults living in the United States today who are not citizens, also cannot vote.
The outcome of the election will impact all of these groups. In some cases, the outcome will probably impact them more than those who can vote. So what if they could cast ballots? What would that be like? That is what we are going to dive into today, a future where far more people living in the United States are given the ability to vote in local and national elections.
Election laws can actually shape the scope, not just of the franchise, but thereby they can influence the outcome of elections.
So let’s start with perhaps the largest group of people who cannot vote in the upcoming election: noncitizens.
There’s like 23 million noncitizens in the United States, okay? 23 million. That’s like almost 10 percent, a little less. And they work in every arena, every sector, including and especially, of course, frontline workers who we all depend on. And they make countless economic, social, and cultural contributions to their communities every day. But they’re excluded from selecting representatives who make policies that affect them on a daily basis.
Noncitizens pay billions of dollars in taxes every year. They send their kids to schools, they work, and shop, and do all of the things that citizens do. And in fact – and this is something I had no idea about until I started researching this episode – noncitizens were allowed to vote in the US for a really long time.
I like to say that immigrant voting is older than our national pastime, baseball, which is happening right now, the World Series and the playoffs.
ROSE (on call):
Who are you rooting for?
Well, my team’s long got out of it. You know, the New York Mets.
Oh, that’s also my team!
Well, jeez, look at that! I knew there was something I liked about you there, Rose. Okay, cool.
From 1776 to 1926, as many as 40 states allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state, and even federal elections. Noncitizens even held office. Ron writes in his book;
The notion that noncitizens should have the vote is older, was practiced longer, and is more consistent with democratic ideals than the idea that they should not.
In other words, noncitizens have a longer history of being allowed to vote in the US than not being allowed to vote.
So what changed?
Immigrant voting spread and was rolled back at different periods of time in American history, partly because of the different consequences that immigrants played in elections, or in the American culture and polity more broadly.
Basically, noncitizens started actually influencing policy.
When larger numbers of immigrants came like the Irish and German – who were not supporters of slavery, they were opposed. But in the South, their first plank in the Confederate Constitution outlawed immigrant voting and said, you know, you couldn’t vote unless you were born in the United States.
That policy was rolled back when the Confederates lost the Civil War, but eventually even Union States started to worry that immigrants might wind up changing the outcome of elections.
We’re talking about, you know, 14-15% of the population is foreign born at this point. They actually became significant as voters. They had impacts. They could determine… you know, that’s the whole point of elections, right? They can determine the winners and losers, and shape some of the issues and public policy that is enacted, and the direction of government.
And these immigrants did vote. In fact, in the late 1800s, voter turnout was really high compared to today.
Between 1840 and 1900, something like 70-80% of those eligible people actually voted in presidential and congressional elections.
For politicians, this meant that they actually had to represent the people, to talk to them, to learn what they wanted. You had worker movements and really high political engagement. People wanted to vote, and they did. They saw their vote as a powerful thing to wield, and it was.
Then, in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, which prevented states from denying the right to vote to Black Americans. And that was kind of the last straw for powerful, almost entirely white politicians who absolutely did not want to have to answer to folks who they saw as below them. Between 1870 and 1924 a whole barrage of new voting laws and practices were pushed through by these politicians.
Things like poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, restrictive residency requirements, voter registration procedures, and the repeal of the immigrant voting reduced voter participation down to 49% of the eligible electorate in 1924. So basically, almost cut voter participation in half. These techniques really worked.
And that huge drop in voter turnout? It hasn’t gotten much better today. In 2016, just 60% of eligible voters showed up to vote in the federal election. And in local elections, that number is even lower, down around 20 percent.
The 15th Amendment made it such that they couldn’t legally bar Black Americans from voting, but they could pass laws about immigrants, so they did. By 1926, all states had put an end to immigrant voting rights. Fun fact: Arkansas was the last state to ban noncitizen voting.
This history, I think, is very significant because it really did limit more democratic, inclusive, and progressive possibilities in the United States for decades.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act banned a lot of the discriminatory practices that kept many Black Americans from voting. At least in theory. Voter suppression is still very much alive and well in the United States. And more recently, in 2013, the Supreme Court made it much harder to enforce that law. But the Voting Rights Act did not undo all those state bans on noncitizens voting.
And Ron argues that we should undo them. We should go back to letting noncitizens vote the way we used to.
You know, it certainly runs counter to the popular slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation,” and fundamental preconditions for a functional democracy, let alone a robust civic engagement and democratic practice.
Excluding non-citizens from voting has real impacts not just on the nation, but on those noncitizens themselves. I wouldn’t say that they have no voice in policy. There are ways to influence the world that do not involve voting, but they don’t have a direct say in who gets elected, and those elections matter.
And in some communities, noncitizens aren’t just a few folks here and there. They’re big groups who are not represented even though the choices of those politicians impact them and their families directly.
That’s a lot of folks, you know? Like almost one in ten nationally, and in several states and localities where they’re concentrated, that proportion can rise to like one in five. In New York City where I was, it was one in two, in Jackson Heights where I used to live. This rivals the political exclusion of women before 1920, or African Americans before 1965, or 18-year-olds before 1971 when they were included. We look back and go, “That was wrong to exclude them.”
So imagine if 23 million noncitizens could vote this month. Well, jeez, you know, immigrants could help determine the outcome of, certainly federal, state, and local elections in the areas where they’re concentrated. Some of these elections are determined by small margins. There’s some big issues at stake here in this election. If we look at, COVID, economic crisis, climate crisis; oh geez, where do we want to go here?
And to the extent that immigrants have a stake in this race, like the rest of us, they could help maybe even forge collective common cause in ways that could really solve some of these problems.
Around the world, there are about 45 countries that allow noncitizens to vote in some capacity, like Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Ireland, and Portugal. Today, even in the United States, there are some places that allow noncitizens to vote in certain elections.
And so they’re drawing the districts and going, “It’s not quite fair that these people don’t have a say.”
A local law professor named Jamie Raskin – who went on to become a congress member – took a look at the Maryland constitution and realized that it actually allowed for localities to determine voting rights.
So they did a referendum. They had this debate among the residents in the town. They did a referendum and the referendum won. And then they passed this charter change and immigrants could vote in Takoma Park since the early ‘90s.
We are going to come back to Takoma Park, Maryland, in a second. But it is worth stating that chaos did not ensue. Noncitizens did not elect the next Osama Bin Laden, which is literally something that opponents suggested could and would happen. And these voters turned out at the same rate as their neighbors who were citizens to vote.
Now, whenever you bring up this idea, there will always be counterpoints. So let’s talk about them. The main argument you hear against allowing noncitizens to vote goes like this:
“Hey, look. There’s already a way for people that are not citizens to get to vote, and that’s to become a citizen. So like, we already have a means by which people can vote. That’s to become a citizen. So, like, they should just do that.”
And that is technically true. But if you know anyone who has ever tried to go through that process, you probably know that it’s a little bit easier said than done. And it’s only getting harder. In July of this year, the Trump administration announced an 81% increase in the cost to apply for naturalization. In 1985, it cost just $35 to apply for citizenship. But if Trump’s proposal goes through, just filing the form will cost you $1,160. And that’s not counting any legal fees you might incur from getting help with those forms or with the process. Folks who do jump through these hoops can wind up waiting years for their paperwork to be processed. In March of this year, there were over 700,000 people with pending citizenship applications. And for many people, finances and other barriers keep them from ever applying at all.
I would argue, and immigrant voting rights advocates at the time argued, and still do, we can do both. We can increase pathways to citizenship and we can do this pre-citizen voting thing like we used to, which actually helps people learn civics by practice and become Americans.
Plus, there are plenty of people who live in the US, pay taxes, and are impacted by policies who aren’t even eligible to apply for citizenship.
I have students that are, you know, international students. Or lots of people work in lots of sectors who are here on work visas but they’re not eligible to become citizens. You have to be sponsored by someone, whether it’s an employer or a family member, to become a citizen.
Another argument against this idea is that giving voting rights to noncitizens would somehow dilute the value of the vote, which is sort of hard to quantify and, honestly, I think, kind of a silly argument. Others argue that noncitizens don’t know enough to vote in the United States, but Ron points out that if you are a citizen, you can move across the country to a new city and immediately be eligible to vote in the elections there, so how is that any different? Other people say that non-citizens won’t put the United States first, that they will have divided loyalties.
Which, you know, is also a little tricky because it’s sort of flawed to assume native-born residents are more loyal.
As you probably know, immigration policy in the United States has become a really hot-button, partisan issue. And because those folks can’t vote, it’s really easy for politicians to turn them into boogeymen without having to worry about it. You can tell all kinds of lies about a group of people and demonize them pretty easily as a politician when you know that they have no say in your political future.
In fact, just to show how prevalent this is, there are currently proposals on the ballot in this election in Colorado, Florida, and Alabama, that ban noncitizens from voting, which is, to be clear, something they already can’t do. In Florida, for example, they are trying to amend the state constitution from saying, “Every citizen” can vote to “Only a citizen” can vote, which functionally means the same thing. A group run by a former Republican legislator raised money to put these measures on the ballot, essentially as a publicity stunt to scare voters into thinking that noncitizen voting even happens and that it’s this big thing to worry about.
Immigrants are not a random portion of the population. They’re sort of marginalized targets these days. Like previously excluded groups without political rights, they can be marginalized or worse, largely because policymakers can ignore them.
I mean, we do have some good representatives, but when the tough decisions have to be made around budgets, it’s like, “Well, who are the voters? Who are the ones that can help or hurt you?” Those are the calculations that elected officials actually make.
So maybe we should consider going back to the way things were and giving a voice to our noncitizen neighbors. If we did, they might have opinions about immigration policy, the wall, citizenship tests, the ways that unemployment and worker protections do and don’t extend to non-citizens.
It worked for Takoma Park, Maryland. And Takoma Park is interesting for another reason too. Noncitizens are not the only ones that they have given the vote to. They also allow 16-year-olds to vote in these elections.
And they’ve created mechanisms to allow citizens to participate more directly and effectively, and candidates to, you know, have a means by which they can communicate and be more responsive to their constituents in a host of ways that they’ve changed some of their election laws. And so, you know, it’s not a perfect utopia, but it’s kind of an interesting, functional, vibrant democratic polity. And there are these places around the country, and I think we can learn a lot from them.
And when we come back, we are going to hear about the push to let 16-year-olds vote in the US more broadly and how that has gone elsewhere. But first, a quick word from our sponsors.
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This episode of Flash Forward is sponsored in part by PNAS Science Sessions. Science Sessions are short, in-depth conversations with the world’s top scientific researchers. In less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, you can, for example, find out how the Vietnam War draft lotteries served as a natural experiment for studying military conscription and public sector employment.
We’re actually about to talk about the draft on this very episode of Flash Forward, so stay tuned for that. But on Science Sessions, you can hear from Dr. Dalton Conley, a sociologist at Princeton University about what the draft can teach researchers about future employment and military service.
Here’s a fun fact that I learned listening to this episode of Science Sessions. Did you know that in the first draft on December 1st, 1969, the capsules with the actual birthdates in them, indicating who would be drafted, weren’t stirred enough? So if you were born later in the year, you were actually more likely to get drafted.
Anyway, what the researchers found, and what they talk about in the episode is that people drafted in the Vietnam War were almost double as likely to be working as civilian employees of the federal government 30-40 years later. Why? Well, you will have to listen to find out.
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[clip from Lyndon B. Johnson press conference, July 1965:]
I have today ordered to Vietnam the Airmobile Division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested.
During the Vietnam War, almost 2 million people were drafted to serve. Many of them were under 21, which meant at the time that they could be drafted but could not vote. In fact, about 30% of American forces in Vietnam were under 21. Over 25,000, or almost half, of those who died in action in Vietnam were under 21. In 1965, the singer Barry McGuire released a song called “Eve of Destruction,” which starts like this:
[clip from “Eve of Destruction”:]
The Eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’. That struck a lot of people as unfair, and the draft reignited a push to decrease the voting age down to 18. This was not the first time people had pushed for this, and it wasn’t even the first time that the draft age was a piece of this argument. 18-year-olds were drafted and died during World War II and they couldn’t vote then either. And activists at the time made the same point. In fact, in 1942 a Senator named Jennings Randolph had proposed a constitutional amendment to give 18-year-olds the right to vote. But it didn’t happen.
It wasn’t until the far less popular Vietnam War that the issue was actually taken up, and on March 10th, 1971, the 26th Amendment, ensuring the “right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age..” That passed in the Senate 94-0.
So now, in the US, anyone 18 or older can vote. But is that enough? For decades there have been calls to decrease the voting age again to 16 or even 14. Representative Jackie Speier introduced legislation to lower the voting age to 14 in California in 1995. And last year, Ayanna Pressley introduced an amendment to legislation to lower the federal voting age to 16.
[clip of Ayanna Pressley:]
By lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years of age, my amendment would allow young people to have a say in our federal election, to help shape and inform the policies that will set the course for the future. From gun violence to climate change, our young people are organizing, mobilizing, and calling us to action. They’re at the forefront of social and legislative movements and have earned inclusion in our democracy.
Shout out to Ayanna Pressley. If you hear this Ayanna, I love you. But back when Ayanna Pressley had brought that up, it passed in the House but, you know, the Senate… When you have corrupt people and a system that has already been made to oppress and do all sorts of things, you get pushback.
This is Ashawn Dabney-Small. He’s 18 years old and he’s running for city council in Boston. And he’s telling as many people as possible about it. Before we officially started our interview, he ordered a coffee and he chatted up the barista about his campaign.
ASHAWN (with barista):
I’m running for Boston City Council against Frank Baker.
ASHAWN (on call with Rose):
I am the youngest candidate in history in the history of Massachusetts. I’m running for Boston City Council in District Three, which is Dorchester.
Ashawn has been involved in politics for years; already working for local organizations, volunteering with the Mayor’s Youth Council, organizing for Elizabeth Warren, and now, running for a spot on the city council against an incumbent named Frank Baker, who was elected to the position in 2011. Baker lives in what’s called Savin Hill, which is the wealthy part of the district.
There are a lot more people than just Savin Hill. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Boston, but Savin Hill is just one little strip in the middle of Dorchester.
Ashawn is running on a platform of reform, racial justice, and defunding the police.
When it comes to problems… and I really thought that Boston was this, kind of, shielded city that has no racism. It’s very sad to say that we need to do better. We need to do better. We can’t continue to allow this rhetoric of racism, inequality, oppression.
He’s also really invested, perhaps obviously, in youth engagement.
You know, lowering the voting age to 16 years old because a lot of things that were affecting me… I was like 15, 16 years old and it was affecting me insanely because I didn’t have the power to vote. And so that’s why every single day when I do speak to the kids at these high schools I encourage them to vote because your vote really does matter and it really does count.
ROSE (on call):
If you ever talk to folks who are skeptical of… You mentioned lowering the voting age to 16. There are some people who say, “Oh, 16-year-olds, they don’t really know enough. They don’t want the vote,” etc., etc. What do you say to those people? How do you try to convince them?
Have you ever asked someone if they wanted to vote at the age of 16? Did you ever think in your mind, “Hey, they’re seeing all this stuff on the news and they’re like, ‘what can I do? Oops. Nothing, because I can’t vote.’”? That would be my thing. Like, did you ever, ever in your whole entire life of you living whatever amount of years you’ve lived on this planet, did you ever ask a 16-year-old, “If you had the chance to vote, would you vote?”
Let me just add something to that. I want to give a shout out to my digital organizer. Her name is Angelique [phonetic]. She is 16 years old. She’s so amazing at what she does. And I was talking to her about, you know, issues that she’s very passionate on. She started talking to me about climate change, and when I tell you we had a good 45-minute conversation about climate change and why there is a need for that so our world doesn’t end and so we don’t continue to progress in polluting our air, I think that’s a fine example of why we need to lower the voting age, because then we’re setting up for their next generation to be represented. We’re setting them up for something that they can look forward to in their country. Why should we be the ones deciding their fate or their future? I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s right.
And in fact, there is actually data about what might happen if we let 16-year-olds vote, because other countries have done it and they know how it goes.
DR. SYLVIA KRITZINGER:
Then something happened in Austria, that the politicians decided to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. And I thought, “Well, this is a great natural experiment to figure out how the 16 and 17-year-olds react once they actually have the right to do something that they hadn’t had the right to do until a couple of years ago.
This is Dr. Sylvia Kritzinger, a professor at the University of Vienna. In 2007, Austria decided to let 16-year-olds vote. Interestingly, this was not actually something that young people in the country were asking for. They weren’t pushing for it; they weren’t marching in the streets asking to be able to vote. It was actually part of a compromise between two parts of a coalition. But either way, it happened, and suddenly all these teenagers had the right to vote.
And so Sylvia and her colleagues used this as an opportunity to try and answer some questions and criticisms that folks have about youth voting.
And it was a research curiosity simply to figure out who’s right; those who actually say, “Yes, they’re simply too young, they are not mature enough. They have no clue what they are doing when turning out to vote,” or the other ones who said “No, actually, these are grown-up citizens. They are not yet 18, but still, they can do so many things at the age of 16, getting married, drink alcohol, (at least here in Europe) and so on and so forth. So why should they not be able to vote, deciding also about the future, especially as it will be their future.” And so it was a curiosity simply to check who’s right.
Now, these specific arguments don’t all apply to the US. The drinking age is 21, for instance. But 16 and 17-year-olds in this country do have other responsibilities. They are legally allowed to work, and about a quarter of them do. They pay taxes, they interface with the criminal justice system, they can be tried as adults in some cases. So why not let them vote?
There are three main arguments that people make against letting 16-year-olds vote. Number one is that they don’t actually want to vote; that they won’t turn out, that they’re not going to vote, so why bother? So Sylvia looked at voter turnout first.
The 16 and 17-year-olds, in 2008, when they were allowed for the first time to turn out in national elections or in general elections, they turned out more likely than those 18, 19, and 20-year-old citizens. So that was surprising.
These new, younger voters actually showed up more than the 18, 19, 20-year-old folks who could vote. And that’s good because there’s a lot of research that shows that voting is a habit. If you don’t vote in the first election that you’re eligible to, you are far less likely to become a habitual voter.
In fact, in Sylvia’s research she found that younger voters are more likely to feel empowered by voting, to feel excited about making change.
Young people still think that they can change something, that their vote is important, that their views are important, that basic people, politicians, listen to them so that they can really make a change to politics. And they are much more positively oriented towards politics and politicians, also, in their involvement. Whereas older voters get really cynical, skeptical. Probably cynical is really the right word in the sense that they simply believe that everything is already decided whether they participate or not, that it doesn’t change anything. Whereas young voters still have this enthusiasm in the sense of, “We can change something. We can do something.”
The second criticism of youth voting rights is that they simply don’t know enough about politics, or they’re just not that interested in politics. They’re going to just vote randomly, or maybe even against their own interests.
Of course, they are not as knowledgeable as elder voters because they have not yet experienced that much and so on and so forth. But in general, the interest will make up for the knowledge which is probably not there to the extent for older voters. But when it comes to voting behavior as such, namely choosing the party, they know which party they want. They are, to a certain extent, good citizens, knowledgeable citizens, and they know what they want.
And the third criticism is that these teens will just become proxy votes for their parents, that they’ll just vote the same way their parents do. But the thing about that is that most people, regardless of age, actually vote the way their parents do.
At this point, Sylvia says that she’s pretty convinced by this data.
We haven’t found anything that speaks against lowering the voting age. There is a whole academic debate – I’m saying academic, not political debate – whether we should actually go one step further, namely lowering the voting age to 14 and get those young people interested in politics even at the earlier stage.
Of course, giving folks the right to vote should not just happen in a vacuum. It should also come along with educational resources to help them understand their role, how to vote, who the parties are, all that stuff.
So what would happen if we did enfranchise all these younger voters in the US?
Actually, probably not that much, because if you think about the amount of 16 and 17-year-olds within the entire electorate of the US, then you realize it’s a small portion. Of course, the small portion can make a difference in certain swing states, for example, in presidential elections. So overall, it might not change that much on the state level. It might change because these might be those small portions of voters who can change the outcome of an election.
But I think in the long term, it has a very positive effect in the sense that people are getting acquainted to the registration process, are getting acquainted with queuing, taking the time to vote, of informing themselves about politics, and so on. So you will have this long term, very positive effect, and a very important aspect also that they somehow have a say in which direction the country should develop. Because in the end, what happens in politics is something that will affect them for sure, because they’re going to stay on this planet, in this country, for much longer than some older voters will do and still have a lot of say on how the country should develop.
But we can say that younger voters often have different priorities than older ones. In general, right now, younger folks in the United States care more about climate change, for example, than older people. The National Youth Rights Association, which Ashawn is Vice President of, has a list of policy proposals that includes things like youth medical autonomy, ending curfew laws, a student bill of rights, and ending the youth minimum wage, which is just $4.25 an hour.
The youth vote might not swing a Presidential election, but politicians are going to have to actually start catering to and listening to this cohort of voters who they’ve been able to ignore for a long time. Just like they’ve ignored noncitizens, and just like they have ignored another group of people who have been excluded from voting: those with a felony on their record.
When we come back, we are going to talk about felony disenfranchisement; what it means, and what it might take to restore their voting rights. But first, another word from our sponsors.
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Okay, so we’ve talked about noncitizens, we’ve talked about 16-year-olds. Now let’s talk about folks who can’t vote for another reason: their criminal record. The Sentencing Project estimates that about 5.2 million Americans cannot vote because of what’s called felony disenfranchisement, which is a term that encompasses a bunch of different things.
It applies to a whole collection of policies that restrict a person’s access to the political process based on the fact that they have been convicted of a crime at some point in the past.
This is Jennifer Taylor, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative.
Technically, most of the 745,000 people currently held in local jails in the United States have not lost their right to vote because they either haven’t been convicted yet or because they are there for misdemeanors. But voting from jail is really rare because the state doesn’t really make any effort to get those folks registered and to get them their ballots.
There is one notable and interesting exception to this. In 2019, Illinois passed a bill requiring the Cook County Jail to become a polling location so that folks could vote. But it is the only jail in the entire country to have in-person voting. All but two states have policies that ban anybody who is currently incarcerated for a felony from voting. 31 states have rules that limit who can vote when they’re on parole or probation, and 11 states have policies even for folks who are no longer on parole or probation.
So, they’re not incarcerated anymore, they’re not on probation or parole, but they are still unable to vote because of that past conviction.
These policies are different state by state, and they can be pretty confusing, to be honest. But one thing is clear: they have a very specific and disproportionate impact. The Sentencing Project estimates that one in every 59 non-Black voters has lost their voting rights due to these policies. But when it comes to Black voters, the number is 1 in every 16.
And this is not an accident. These policies were enacted basically to do exactly this. When slavery was abolished and African Americans were given the right to vote, states immediately got to work figuring out how to limit that right.
There was still an interest in figuring out how to limit their influence as much as possible. And that led to the creation of policies that were aimed at restricting the right to vote in a way that would have a racialized impact, even though it didn’t hinge on race. And there were a number of policies that came out of that. A lot of us have heard of a lot of those policies, like literacy tests, and a poll tax, and those kinds of things. Felony disenfranchisement is also a policy that came out of that.
And this was, in some cases, very explicit. In 1901, for example, Alabama was drafting a new constitution. And at the convention, the man presiding over that process, John B. Knox, said that within the limits imposed by the federal Constitution, the delegates were there “to establish white supremacy in this state. If we should have white supremacy, we must establish it by law – not by force or fraud.” And to do that, they decided that anybody “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude,” could not vote unless their right was specifically restored. And if you’re wondering which crimes are the morally turpitudinous ones, you are not alone.
There wasn’t anything in the Constitution or in the law anywhere that explained what that is. And so it created a situation in which, in each county, the official who was in charge of evaluating if a person is eligible to vote or not, they were in the position of power to interpret the language in the Constitution. They could pick and choose who it applies to and who it doesn’t apply to.
And so in a lot of ways, that was a victory and it was helpful because there is a list that is supposed to apply to everybody, and it makes it a lot easier for people to figure out if this law applies to them or not.
But Jennifer says that even with this new list, the confusion still persists among folks who might be impacted by it because the state of Alabama refused to actually do any work to tell people about this list and about this change.
There was also a lawsuit that was in court at the time about these policies, and so at the point that the law was passed the advocates who were involved in the lawsuit asked the court to order the state to mount an effort to inform people. And that was something that the state was opposed to and it basically took the position that, you know, if people are actually interested in casting a vote and being part of the political process, then they should be able to put in the effort to, like, find out this information and it isn’t something that is the responsibility of the state to make it easy for them.
And Alabama is not the only state where activists have been inching two steps forward and one step back on this issue. In Florida, in 2018, voters actually passed an amendment that would restore voting rights to former felons after they completed their sentence and parole, as long as they were not convicted of murder or a sexual offense. This was seen as a huge win for folks working to get people their vote back. When the amendment passed, an estimated 1.4 million ex-felons became eligible to vote in Florida. But in the two years since, politicians in Florida have done everything they possibly could to make sure that as few Floridians were able to actually take advantage of this as possible.
And I think for a lot of advocates, including me, there is something very uncomfortable about the idea of the people who are able to vote in a state being able to cast a vote to decide if other people are going to be able to vote or not. And it feels like something that should come from a court, and a court should say, “Of course they should be able to vote. It’s unconstitutional that they aren’t. And it should apply to everybody, and that’s it,” instead of it being something that hinges on, like, a popular opinion of something.
But at the same time, the fact that it was something that passed was certainly exciting and was a victory. Then in the aftermath of the passage of it we see the efforts to, kind of, limit the impact of that reform. And I think that also illustrates some of the limitations of that kind of reform that is coming out of a referendum instead of a court.
The reason that all these movements are happening on the state level instead of through the courts is that there actually has been a Supreme Court case about voting for former felons. In 1974, the Supreme Court heard the case of Richardson v. Ramirez, and they decided that the 14th Amendment does include language that could be interpreted to allow for felony disenfranchisement.
There are historians that argue that that has been interpreted much more expansively than it was intended to be. But the language is in there and the courts have held that because of that you cannot argue that these policies are automatically unconstitutional. I would certainly be in favor of an effort to, kind of, amend the 14th Amendment, but I’m also not expecting that to happen anytime soon. We’ll see.
So instead, folks are working state by state in this hard, uphill battle trying to convince local politicians and voters that denying folks the right to vote based on past convictions isn’t right.
What is the purpose of this kind of policy? Like, how is your ability to cast a vote actually connected to the idea of criminal punishment? And why should they be connected? I know for me, some of the specific anecdotes I have come across that have made an impact are, for instance, situations in which a person loses the right to vote even before they have it because they may have been arrested, and charged, and convicted of a robbery when they were 13, or 14, or 15. And they were charged as an adult so they were convicted of a felony. They serve a significant amount of time, come out as an adult, and they’re in a state where they’re not able to vote because of that conviction and they were never able to vote.
When you think about that in the context of an individual person, it’s certainly haunting. When you think about it in the context of a whole community of people, you start to think about, like, what are we concerned about? What are we afraid is going to happen if these people are able to actually tell us who they want to speak for them and what they think are the right policies?
This also gets to these big questions of what people think the point of incarceration even is. If it’s punishment, and then you’ve done your time, why should you still be punished afterwards? If it’s rehabilitation, then, in theory, by the time you’re out you should be able to rejoin society fully and vote, right?
Jennifer also points out that not only do these policies disproportionately impact the Black community, they also remove the right to vote from folks who actually know a lot more than most people about how, say, the court system works.
100% of the people who are impacted by these policies are people who have been convicted of a crime and people who have had extremely intimate exposure to the operation of our court system and our prison system. I mean, think about the huge numbers of people who are currently incarcerated or who have been incarcerated in the United States since the ‘80s. To think about the huge impact that mass incarceration is having on our country, and the fact that most of those policies are coming out of the political process, but that most of the people who have the most exposure to how that system operates are not able to participate in that conversation is also a huge problem in and of itself.
And again, the politicians who run for office do not have to think about these people. They don’t have to actually try and earn their votes, which means that they don’t have to address their concerns about a system that these people know really well.
The largest impact it has is on prohibiting political participation among huge proportions of people who have been incarcerated and who have been convicted of an offense. And I think we don’t have… We are not at a point politically… We’re not even close to a point, politically, in which there are clear, elected officials or candidates for elected office or, like, a party that is consistently advocating positions that are representing the interest of people in that position.
Much like with the question of noncitizen voting and even 16-year-old voting, those who are currently elected don’t have a lot of incentive to work with, or listen to, or try and court these people because… they don’t vote; because they can’t vote. Politicians don’t have a lot of incentive to try and get these folks to vote, either, because they might not actually like what’s happening. They might demand changes.
But isn’t the whole point of having a thriving democracy that we have a system that actually attempts to represent everybody living in it? Oh, and we haven’t even really talked very much at all about the active efforts to suppress the votes for folks who have it; changing voter ID laws, 10-hour lines in underserved communities, purging the voting rolls, changing the voter registration rules at the 11th hour, moving voting locations, usually in Black communities from a neutral community space to, say, the sheriff’s office. The list goes on and on.
These conversations get at a long-running internal conflict in American history.
It does go back, if you ask me, to the origin story and the origins of the American republic, which, you know, it’s kind of a mixed bag, to put it politely.
That’s Dr. Ron Hayduk again.
If you read the Declaration of Independence as a very broad, inclusive, egalitarian project where many working people thought they saw themselves in that future as a more… including even slaves at the time or indentured servants.
America has long espoused this idea of freedom and equality, while at the same time not actually practicing those ideas and often, in fact, undermining the freedom and equality of all kinds of groups.
I always like to say that history is a great teacher, that we can learn from our interesting, rich past. It’s not to say that that’s what’s going to happen, but certainly it sheds light on why we are where we are today. And it certainly does indicate options for where we might want to go and options for action that might shape that future. You know, your title, Flash Forward; well, where do we want to flash to? It’s a nice thing to think about. I love that.
Voting rights can sometimes seem, almost, natural in a way. I had no idea, for example, that noncitizens could vote for so long in the US. But these are rules we make and that we can remake. They’re rules that are meant to exclude people from using one of the tools of shaping the future.
If the United States extended the right to vote to all three groups that we talked about today, noncitizens, 16-year-olds, and folks with criminal records, we would add about 40 million new voters in this country. For context, in the 2016 presidential election, 66 million people voted for Hillary Clinton, and 63 million people voted for Donald Trump.
What would happen if those 40 million people could vote? Everybody I talked to for this episode basically said, “I don’t know.” But what they did say is that, despite what some alarmists might argue, giving these people the right to vote would not lead to complete chaos. We can pretty confidently say that formerly incarcerated folks are not going to band together and repeal all laws, which would be basically impossible. And non-citizens are not going to wind up leading the US to, I don’t know, give away half the country to Guatemala or something. Teens are not going to make TikTok president. None of that is going to happen.
In fact, it’s hard to say who these folks will vote for. I don’t think we can assume that they will vote one way or another, necessarily. Candidates are going to have to earn their votes, and that’s actually the really exciting part of all this, right? That is how democracy is supposed to work. Candidates and leaders actually answering to the people they’re making decisions about day in and day out. And in doing so, maybe the process will also feel a little bit less demoralizing and rigged for the rest of us too.
That’s one of the reasons Ashawn is running in Boston, too. Because he didn’t feel like his city council member was listening to everybody in his district, all of the people who live there.
I believe that a city councilor should be someone who’s on the ground every single day in their neighborhood; speaking to their constituents, speaking to their local small businesses, and seeing what they can do to help.
I want to end this episode not with a lecture about voting for the next US President, but instead with a nudge to spend the time to actually learn who else is on the ballot in your community and how you can get involved beyond voting. Yes, the president is very important, but so are the other races. And depending on where you are, those can actually be more impactful and your vote can matter more in those down-ballot races. Who is your city counselor, your mayor, your school board members? What do they stand for?
We can learn a lot about political participation by looking at the people in this country who don’t have the right to vote. Being disenfranchised has not stopped them from getting involved in other ways; protesting, speaking out about their rights, and fighting to change local laws. And those strategies can be pretty effective. In some cases, they’ve made the difference between who can vote and who can’t.
Voting is important, but it’s not the only way for your voice to be heard. And I hope that the energy you’re maybe feeling right now for politics carries beyond the ballot box and into board meetings, and public protests, and volunteering, and all of these other ways that you can make better futures.
[Flash Forward closing music begins – a snapping, synthy piece]
Flash Forward is hosted by me, Rose Eveleth, and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. Our famous person encouraging you to vote from the future this episode was played by the lovely Julia Llinas Goodman.
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That is all for this future. Come back next time, and we’ll travel to a new one.
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