Timothy Noah

Defending Perry

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Speaking today in New Hampshire, Rick Perry confused the voting age with the drinking age. He exhorted students at St. Anselm College to vote for him if they were 21 or over and to work for him if they were younger than 21. (He didn't actually say anything about drinking.)

Perry will get lots of grief about this, but not from me. After all, the voting age used to be 21 and the drinking age used to be 18. The voting age was lowered in 1971 in part because it seemed unfair to draft a young man to fight in Vietnam without giving him the chance to vote for or against political candidates who supported or opposed that war. The drinking age was raised in the late 1970s and early 1980s (New Hampshire raised it to 20 in 1979 and then to 21 in 1985) in response to lobbying pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups concerned about the high incidence of drunk driving-related deaths among young people.

It was thought that lowering the voting age would increase young people's engagement in politics--click here for a poignant prediction along these lines from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D.-Mass.--but the evidence shows that young people are far less interested in voting, which they're allowed to do, than in drinking, which they aren't. Voter turnout for 18 to 24 year-olds is typically only 40 to 50 percent (as against voter turnout of about 60 to 70 percent for voters aged 25 and older). Even in 2008, the unusually-high youth turnout for Obama translated into a participation rate for 18 to 24 year-olds of only 51.1 percent. Meanwhile, although underage drinking has been declining in recent years, fully 71 percent of 12th graders report that they have imbibed alcohol, and 54 percent say they've had the experience of getting drunk. And that's just the 17-to-18 year-olds.

On the evidence, then, it seems broadly true that in America people start drinking when they're teenagers and they start voting sometime in their late 20s. There are exceptions, and as the father of two teenagers all I can say is God bless them. Maybe the answer is to raise the voting age back up to 21 to make the challenge of sneaking into a polling place without getting carded interesting to America's youth. "Binge voting" might become a trend, wherein young people pull the lever not only for president but for senator, representative, mayor, and city councilman. Similarly, we might consider lowering the drinking age back to 18 to give young people the chance to learn earlier in life what a boring place a bar typically is and what an unpleasant experience it is to vomit all over the sidewalk (if you're lucky) or yourself (if you aren't). At any rate, I give Perry a pass on this one.

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