AP NEWS

Bills on smoking, voting not necessarily in conflict

March 19, 2019

At first glance, proposals to lower the voting age to 17 for primary elections but raise the age for smoking to 21 seem to be in direct conflict. One says young Texans can handle more responsibility on something as important as voting, the other says they can’t be trusted to make the right decision on something as personal as smoking. Yet that kind of disparity has existed in state and federal laws for some time, and it shouldn’t prevent both of these proposals from being considered on their merits.

Congress raised the drinking age back up to 21 in 1984 even though 18-year-olds can get married, join the military, sign contracts, etc. When those under 21 were allowed to buy alcohol for a few years prior to that, the increase in drunk-driving deaths and injuries among those younger drinkers was too large to be ignored.

It would be better if our laws had a single, clear dividing line between youth and adulthood, but the complexities of these various issues don’t allow it. For example, few Americans objected when the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21 in 1970. Unlike the briefly lowered drinking age, it didn’t have any negative ramifications.

The current proposal in the Texas Legislature is to allow 17-year-olds to vote in party primary elections for county and state offices (currently held in March) if they will be 18 by the general election in November. That seems reasonable, especially since primary elections don’t officially elect anyone. They simply select the Democratic and Republican candidates who will be on the November ballot, when the real winner is decided. Sometimes, however, candidates from only one party will run for a particular race, so in effect the person who wins the March primary will be unopposed in November, and thus win the election.

Some states have gone further to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, but that hasn’t come to Texas yet. It’s more controversial, since those elections would actually put candidates in power. Some adults also wonder if 16-year-olds are mature and knowledgeable enough to select city council or school board members.

The proposal to raise the smoking age to 21 has more support in this session, including from a surprising source — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other prominent Republicans. The GOP generally opposes measures like this which affect personal choice, but it’s hard for anyone to defend smoking these days. Study after study shows that most smokers begin their habit while young. If that experimentation can be delayed for some, it will clearly result in fewer adult smokers — and thus a healthier Texas.

Both of these bills are being overshadowed by more important legislation on schools and taxes, but they still deserve a hearing and a vote in both chambers. Young Texans will be paying attention, and they need to know that their concerns matter, too.