Earlier this year, Sens. Stanley Chang and Karl Rhoads proposed a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 16 for state and local elections.

They had good intentions. They wanted to increase voter turnout and help young people establish a lifelong habit of voting. They thought their bill would address voter apathy and increase civic engagement.

However, their diagnosis of the problem was incomplete.

It makes more sense to attribute voter apathy to uncontested elections or the fact that, after the Democratic primary election, almost all state House and Senate races are effectively finished. Lowering the voting age does little to solve these problems.

Early Voting Special Election at Honolulu Hale1.

Rather than letting 16-year-olds vote, we should be thinking about future generations.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This recent effort to lower the voting age has precedent. Former Rep. Kaniela Ing introduced a similar bill, and Rep. Chris Lee and Speaker Scott Saiki proposed a working group within the Office of Elections “to study whether or not the minimum voting age in the State should be lowered to sixteen years.”

The question of whether to lower the voting age is a good one, but a better question is how to incorporate the interests of future generations into the political process.

Here, I survey common arguments against lowering the voting age. I then propose seven generation stewardship as a better way to represent future generations.

Don’t Lower the Voting Age

There are three common arguments against lowering the voting age. First, that the right to vote should be granted only to those who have responsibilities. Second, that adolescents lack the background knowledge and life experience necessary to make independent decisions. Third, that adolescents are unable to reason because their brains are not fully developed.

The first argument is the strongest. At age sixteen, most adolescents are still in high school. Most of those students don’t have jobs. If they work, they probably don’t earn enough to pay for the services they receive from the state or their parents.

Effectively, they’re dependents. And in a position of dependency, it is difficult to claim the right to decide.

The second argument is also strong: If voters lack knowledge and experience, they base their decisions on ignorance, prejudice, and external influence.

The reliance on external influence is especially worrying.

Throughout history, political organizations have sought to influence and mold young minds. Consider the Komsomol, the Hitler Youth, and the Red Guards.

This is not to suggest that the Young Democrats of Hawaii will lead the glorious revolution in Hawaii. But the youth of Hawaii will be susceptible to influence by political organizations near and far.

It’s doubtful that youth will become informed voters at home. After all, most of their parents don’t vote. Instead, they’ll be targeted with propaganda on social media. This deliberate targeting will occur within a media environment that already creates filter bubbles and helps to spread misinformation.

Finally, the argument about brain development.

Even though it is hard to mark a bright-line between childhood and adulthood, we know that our executive function skills mature well into our twenties. Those skills allow us to “hold onto and work with information, focus thinking, filter distractions, and switch gears.” They are, in essence, the skills necessary to make wise decisions.

Wisdom is a hard-fought trait and adolescents simply haven’t been in the fight long enough.

These arguments should give us pause when thinking about whether to lower the voting age.

This is not to say that efforts to lower the voting age are without merit. In fact, they point to an important principle: political decision-making should consider the interests of generations that haven’t yet come of age.

Lowering the voting age by two years won’t satisfy this principle. A more radical paradigm shift is necessary.

Seven Generation Stewardship

Seven generation stewardship is a simple idea. Each generation acts as a steward, holding resources in trust for future generations. As such, political leaders must think about the consequences of their actions seven generations into the future.

The concept is often attributed to Native American tribes like the Iroquois, but the origin is less important than the practice.

How often do our political leaders think seven generations into the future when making decisions? How often do we?

We could start by leaving one chair empty at every committee meeting, to represent the unborn generations that will inherit the decisions made at the Capitol.

Seven generation stewardship is a paradigm shift. It forces us to confront the short-term orientation that is built into our economic and political structures.

Changing the voting age might boost turnout in the short-term, but does little to address the long-term issues we face, such as adapting to climate change.

The issues that will take precedence in the next hundred years won’t be properly addressed because the expanded franchise still leaves future generations unaccounted for in the policy process.

Embracing seven generation thinking doesn’t require the passage of a bill. It only requires that we think before we act. The hard part is to remind ourselves of this responsibility for the future, especially in the halls of governance.

We could start by leaving one chair empty at every committee meeting, to represent the unborn generations that will inherit the decisions made at the Capitol.

We might go further and designate a member of each committee as the future advocate. That person would be responsible for considering the long-term effects of policies and advocating on behalf of those yet unborn.

Ultimately, seven generation stewardship is a cultural shift. It is a recognition that our time on this Earth is a brief moment in the history of humankind, that we inherit a world from our ancestors and bequeath it to our successors.

It is a moral principle that places the long-term health of society over selfish temptations in the short term.

We can forgive our politicians for imagining that every problem has a political solution, but changes to voter eligibility won’t solve voter apathy or adequately represent the interests of those not yet of age.

The onus is on all of us – political leaders and citizens – to accept our responsibility as stewards and let that sense of responsibility guide our actions. Short of that cultural change, we’re just setting up a few extra deck chairs on the Titanic.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.