MOUNT VERNON — Though far from lacking in opinions on the topic, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman was just a member of the audience Monday as four students from Mount Vernon High School’s debate team debated the legal voting age.
The debate was held in the school’s library, with students presenting the pros and cons of whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote.
“Students are left without a voice,” said sophomore Emily Ney, who argued that the youths should be allowed to vote. “Now is the time to pass the torch of democracy to our youth.”
Ney and her teammate, junior Alexa Grechishkin, argued that dropping the voting age would pressure schools to offer more and better civics classes.
They argued that because habits form in the teenage years, those allowed to vote at 16 would as they got older be more likely to do so in future elections and participate in government.
The last time the voting age was lowered was in 1971, thanks to a Constitutional amendment. Then, the girls said, it was in response to inequities presented by young men being required to file for the draft but not allowed to vote.
With issues such as climate change and gun violence in the national spotlight, youth should have a say in their government, which is part of the reason Austria lowered its voting age to 16, Grechishkin said.
“It’s clear the youth have a stake in these issues,” she said.
Juniors Jaylin Talmodge and Ausha Curry disagreed, saying that lowering the voting age to 16 would only expand the inequities already inherent in the American voting system.
“(Youths) don’t need a voice when we have adults out there who don’t have a voice in government,” argued Curry, the team captain. “The voting system is unequal, which means we shouldn’t expand it.”
Instead, the girls said, they would like to focus on fixing the system already in place, including through pre-registration and mandatory voting. If everyone is expected to vote, no one will be left out, Talmodge said.
“You do not have to fit into a box,” she said.
Monday’s debate was put on in conjunction with Wyman’s visit, who was in Skagit County at the invitation of the League of Women Voters of Skagit County.
Her first debate, she told the students, was in 2016, despite having filed for office several times before that.
“These are great life skills to make them critical thinkers, which is important,” Wyman said after the debate. “You can tell these students are going to go places.”
While she has spent 25 years trying to get young people to vote, Wyman said she was not a proponent of lowering voting age to 16, even if it was in her power to do so.
“I think there’s merit and it means something when you have to wait for it,” she said. “It’s a rite of passage.”
Still, she said, the students did a great job presenting their arguments.
The students were happy to have the opportunity to debate in front of Wyman, they said.
“It makes us feel like our voices are valued, even though we don’t have a vote,” said Curry.
Presenting in front of Wyman and other community members, including school board members, Skagit County Auditor Sandy Perkins, Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau, and Councilwoman Iris Carias will make them better public speakers, they said.
“It’s a skill I can take out of the debate chamber and into the real world,” Grechishkin said.