Aug 7, 2020

Uncounted

First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all.

Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote.

Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it’s not a state, and it wasn’t until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role.

Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further?

Music in this episode by Carling & Will

This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari.

Check out Latif Nasser’s new Netflix show Connected here.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate. 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

[music]

Latif Nasser: Hey.

Jad Abumrad: Hey.

Latif: Well, the first caveat I feel like I need to do, which is that I have my-- I literally just got a call. I have my phone on because my wife could go into labor at any minute.

Jad: Yes, you just got a call--

Latif: I just got a call from my sister probably trying to see if my wife is going into labor. [laughs]

Jad: Okay. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. We've got a couple of things for you today we have to look forward, then a couple of looks back, which turned into a look forward. To get going, I want to share a conversation I had this week with our director of research, Latif Nasser, who, among other things, hosted the recent series, the other Latif might think of our Latif is the other, other Latif. I want to feature-- I just want to point a spotlight at him for a second because, man, he has a lot going on right now. In addition to having a kid, he just released a TV show he did with Netflix and I wanted to talk about it.

Latif: Two days ago, my show came out and then today, hopefully, supposedly, my baby's coming out. It's a lot going on right now.

Jad: Well, let's talk about the child, the creative child, the creative baby that you just had. What is it? How did it come to be? Just set it up for me.

Latif: Yes, so I made this TV show. It's called Connected. The idea it's a kind of meditation on the many scientifically-observed ways that each of us are connected to each other and our world and that are so surprising and the kinds of things like I think a great Radiolab show will make you look at a thing you take for granted and see it in a whole new way.

Jad: It's one of these like Jason Bourne-esque shows where, literally, every scene is in a different country. There's Latif in the desert. There's Latif on a plane. There's Latif in space. I don't know if you were ever in space, but--

Latif: I did go in a hot air balloon over a volcano.

Jad: I was jealous of you from the very beginning. Let's talk about dust because that's one of the six episodes where you follow dust literally blowing across the Earth. How did you decide on dust?

Latif: It was from a press release that NASA put out and it felt like this globe-spanning, subtle, hidden force that's like nudging different people in different places in different ways that you never could have guessed that all of those came from the same thing. That thing happened to be like this random dust from this random spot in the middle of the Sahara Desert. It turns out getting to the dustiest place on planet Earth is really, really difficult. I've been traveling for like three days now.

Jad: Okay, so we start in the Sahara. Beautiful overhead shot of you walking through this like dusty landscape. It's a great scene of you and a scientist leaning over a prehistoric fish dried up in the dust because you explain that this used to be an ocean.

Latif: It almost felt like a religious experience. I felt like I was communing with this prehistoric catfish.

Jad: Okay, so you point at this fish and you say this ancient fish is part of what has created the dust of this desert and this dust literally blows across the entire globe. Walk me through the places you follow it.

Latif: Yes. Okay, so this dust, it's like in a special spot where there are these mountain ranges and it creates this wind tunnel effect. The wind just digs it up. Great sit down this fish and all the other creatures that lived in this prehistoric lake, it gets into these fine, fine, fine grains like even finer than the sand and then it gets kicked up way high into the atmosphere. From there, it goes fully over all of West Africa. It keeps going over the Atlantic. There's this kind of zone that meteorologists called the Nursery, Irma, Matthew, Maria, Ivan.

Over half of the Atlantic storms big enough to get named start as baby storms here off the West African coast. What happens is this dust cloud goes into the hurricane cloud. There's one-- I think it was Lorenzo. There was a hurricane that was like an active hurricane in the middle of the ocean that was making its way across the Atlantic. This dust cloud, what it does is it basically snuffed it out. If it weren't for this dust doing its thing, there would be more hurricanes hitting the Americas.

Jad: Okay. Step one, 8,000-year-old fish are like chilling out modern-day hurricanes?

Latif: Right, right. We keep going. We keep following it.

Speaker 1: We know that there's a lot of dust blowing over the ocean from satellite images and most of this stuff ends up in the ocean.

Latif: A lot of that dust is sort of as it goes, some of it rains down along the way. Imagine, you are a plankton just in the middle of the ocean just hanging out. In the middle of the ocean, there's not a lot of nutrients to be found, but then this dust comes out of nowhere and gives life to this plankton, which is great for two reasons. Number one, they're a major carbon sink. In terms of global warming, when those creatures die like their little skeletons fall down to the bottom of the ocean, so it's a literal carbon sink. The other good thing, those ocean phytoplankton make a-- Oh, I forget what the percentage is. It's like a ridiculous proportion of the oxygen that we breathe.

Jad: That is so cool. All right. Step one, the ancient dust chills out baby hurricanes. Step two, it feeds the phytoplankton, which create, literally, the lungs of the planet. What's step three?

Latif: Some of that dust goes over basically to the Caribbean, to the Gulf Coast of the United States. It can cause a lot of problems actually. There's one thing that happens called red tide, where it basically gives-- In the same way that it's feeding those phytoplankton, it feeds this bacterium that what you see is like just tons of fish, dolphins, manatees, all these different ocean creatures dying, but not just that. It can have for people nearby the coast like respiratory effects. Somebody coughing in Florida, that could be because of this-- Again, it's like tracing back to this fish, this thousands-of-years-old fish.

Jad: Okay. Where does it all end up?

Latif: The kind of magnificent end to our episode is the Amazon rainforest. When I went there, the thing that one of the scientists there told me was-- and this kind of blew my mind and it never occurred to me, is that the soil in the Amazon rainforest kind of actually sucks. It's not great and its dust comes, rains down. Again, it's full of all these nutrients like phosphorus that are amazing fertilizer. The rainforest is being fertilized and kept stable by this fertilizer falling from the heavens.

Jad: That's amazing. It's amazing to consider.

[crosstalk]

Latif: The astonishing thing to me and the thing about this connection between the Amazon and the Sahara, the Sahara being the deadest place you can imagine and then for that to be fertilizing and giving life to the most vital, vibrant biodiverse place that you can imagine, that connection is so-- it's like so beautiful and profound to me.

Jad: Yes, totally. Okay. If they want to check it out, they just search for Connected?

Latif: You could literally. It's netflix.com/connected. The one thing I do want to tell you-- Oh, sorry.

Jad: No, no. Go for it. I was going to start to wrap up, but yes, please.

Latif: Okay. One thing I do want to tell you because I feel like I owe you to tell you this. There is one thing that I kept bumping into as I was doing the research for this show, this numerical statistical pattern. I was like, "Okay. I want to do a show about this." We started, we were partway through, and then one of the producers that I was working with was like, "Oh, you know there was a Radiolab about this."

Jad: [laughs]

Latif: I was like, "Wait, what?" Before I got there, it was in the numbers episode. It's a segment in the numbers episode. I don't know if you remember doing a segment on Benford's law.

Jad: Oh, sure, yes. That episode actually was made when I was on paternity leave.

Latif: Oh, so you don't even know. Okay.

Jad: That was really like Soren grabbing ahold of that one story.

Latif: Okay. All right.

Jad: Yes, I do remember that episode.

Latif: Benford's law, so I ran in that same story. I did a much bigger, broader version than in the Radiolab version. What was cool was one of the scientists who I talked to who was using Benford's law, she was using it on bots. She exposed this ring of thousands and thousands of Russian Twitter bots. The reason she did any of that research was she was like, "Oh, because I heard it on Radiolab and then I went out into my research and I tried it the next day and it worked." It was just so cool to me to be like, "Oh, that feels so nice." It feels like a thing. It's the universe folding in on itself for something.

Jad: Totally. I like that there too, you see those hidden connections. The idea dust from Radiolab blows. It certainly didn't start at Radiolab. Those things have been blown forever that we're a node in the spread is really cool, really cool.

[music]

Jad: Radiolab Director of Research Latif Nasser. Again, the show is called Connected and you can find it on Netflix. By the way, just a few hours ago from this moment, at this moment where I'm speaking into this mic, Latif and Carly, his wife, had their second baby. Huge congrats to both of them.

[music]

Jad: Okay. I mentioned that we have a couple of little looks back. Timely looks back, I think you'll see. A couple of years ago, as part of our More Perfect series, we made an album. We got a bunch of musicians together and we had them each write a song inspired by one of the 27 amendments to the United States Constitution. Dolly Parton, by the way, was on that album. That was my first interaction with her before Dolly Parton's America. In any case, we made an album, an actual album that got released in all the places. On the podcast, we paired each of those songs with little stories.

I like to think of them as audio liner notes, which told little stories about each of the amendments. Recently, a couple of things happened in the world that brought two of those stories to mind for us. First of all, about a month ago, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to make Washington, DC a state at long last. One of the key political players behind that push was a woman named Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's congressional delegate. We actually got into a bit of a tussle with her about this very issue two years ago. We're going to play that for you now. It was part of the piece we did on the 23rd Amendment.

Speaker 2: 23rd Amendment, presidential vote for DC.

[Washington, DC by The Magnetic Fields playing]

Speaker 3: The District, constituting the seat of government of the United States, shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct a number of electors of president and vice president equal to the whole number of senators and representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state, if it were a state, if it were a state.

Jad: Okay. We arrived at Amendment 23. All those words just a second ago, what they amount to is simply this. 23rd Amendment gives the citizens of the District of Columbia, the citizens of DC, the right to vote for president, which for me begs the question, DC didn't have the right to vote for president? What? The White House is in DC for God's sakes. How did it take us 23 amendments to give the citizens of DC the right to vote for president? Why, Julia Longoria? Why? Why didn't they have that right in the first place?

Julia Longoria: The short answer is it was kind of an accident. The reason why this ended up happening is the Founders wanted to put the White House in a neutral place. They wanted it to be outside of state politics so you wouldn't run into a situation where the civil war breaks out and the White House is in Alabama. What would Abraham Lincoln have done in that situation? We wanted to make sure the Capitol would operate from a peaceful place of neutrality. The Founders took corners of Maryland and Virginia and created a city that would be controlled by Congress.

I don't think anyone meant to disenfranchise all of the nearly 700,000 citizens that live in DC, but that's what ended up happening. Because DC is not a state, the Constitution didn't really address it. For instance, it didn't have electors in the electoral college. Alexander Hamilton thought, eventually, we'd fix the representation problem in DC, but that didn't come until 1961 with amendment number 23.

Jad: It's crazy it took that long. Did it actually fix the problem in the end?

Julia: No, actually. All the 23rd Amendment did is give the citizens of DC the right to vote for a president, which is no small thing, but it left many things unanswered. It didn't really clarify what DC is constitutionally. Is it a city? Is it a state? The way our system of government works, you've got to be part of a state to have senators. You've got to be part of a state to have a vote in the House. DC is simultaneously not a state and not part of a bigger state. It's definitely a thing, but it's not enough of a thing to get it full representation in Congress.

Eleanor Holmes Norton: You don't have a full democracy unless you're treated equally. The District is not treated equally because we're the only jurisdiction that pay federal taxes whose member cannot vote and whose member has no senators.

Julia: That's you. You can't vote, right?

Eleanor: That's me.

Julia: This is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Eleanor: I represent the District of Columbia in the nation's capital.

Julia: She sits at the center of the blind spot of the 23rd Amendment. She's the non-voting delegate from Washington, DC.

Eleanor: I'm called a delegate just like my peers are called delegates.

Jad: Sorry. What is a non-voting delegate? What is that?

Julia: It's what it sounds like. It's a congressperson who represents their constituents in Congress. They have an office in Congress, does all the things that normal Congress people do. When it comes time for the final vote on the floor, they don't have a vote.

Jad: They don't have a vote? Well, isn't that the whole reason you elect a Congressperson so they could go to DC and vote on bills?

Julia: Yes. [chuckles] Over the years, there have been over 150 proposals to change this. Ideally, Eleanor wants to solve it by making DC-

Eleanor: - the 51st state of the United States.

Julia: It's become like this political thing where DC is very blue as a city. It's also 47% African American. What's happened over the years is that some Republicans have found ways to block Eleanor Holmes Norton's efforts to get representation. Some people say it would be unconstitutional.

Eleanor: A huge disappointment to me, but very frankly, I'm used to uphill battles so you can get yourself together.

Julia: A thing to know about Eleanor Holmes Norton is that long before she was the congresswoman from DC, she was-

[music]

Julia: - a civil rights activist.

Eleanor: I will not yield, sir.

Julia: A student organizer with the Mississippi Freedom Summer in the 1960s.

Eleanor: Equality is not an ingrained part of this society and, I might add, of almost any other diverse society.

Julia: Amazon made a show about the lawsuit she won for young women researchers at Newsweek.

Eleanor: The idea of women's equality begins yesterday.

Julia: When she was a lawyer at the ACLU, she won a historic 1st Amendment case where she represented White nationalists.

Eleanor: Sometimes I got to defend people who would not defend me.

Julia: The woman is fascinating. She was the first woman to head the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and wrote the first federal guidelines that helped make sexual harassment illegal under federal law and-

Reporter: Eleanor Holmes Norton led the push so that Anita Hill could even be heard.

Julia: She was one of the people who demanded that Anita Hill be able to testify before the Senate. She is a revolutionary.

Host: With that, I would like to invite Congresswoman Norton up. Thank you so much.

Julia: Which is why I found it strange to see her in this position.

Eleanor: Thank you very, very much.

Julia: Why would she choose this job?

Eleanor: I christen this ship, Potomac Water Taxi 2. Soon, I hope to have a real name.

[laughter]

Julia: The day we visited her, she was speaking at an event at the wharf, a neighborhood on the water that she helped develop, to christen a new water taxi.

Eleanor: May she bring fair winds-

Julia: I know politicians have to do that sort of thing-

Eleanor: - less rain-

Julia: -but the juxtaposition of the revolutionary I've read about-

Eleanor: - and good fortune-

Julia: -and this woman-

Eleanor: - for all who sail her.

Julia: - who I see smacking a staff against the yellow water taxi-

[applause]

Julia: - it was confusing. You've been doing this for a long time, right? [chuckles] Since 91. I'm curious. You got a really varied career. I watched the Amazon special that's loosely based on your life and you were the first woman-- You know all this. I wonder why you made the turn to be in this position where your hands are tied.

Eleanor: Ironically, my hands aren't tied in the least. I can't do the final vote. By the time the final vote comes in the House, it's a done deal. I have to do the work ahead of time, which is what every member, even those who have the vote, have to do--

Julia: What made things even more confusing is that she insisted that even though she cannot vote, her job is no different than any of her colleagues.

Eleanor: I go to the House floor like everybody else. I work in committee where most of the work is being done. I go and talk to members of the Senate.

Julia: It kept coming up. She kept harping on that point, "My job is no different."

Eleanor: Frankly, I do what everybody else does if you want to get a bill passed.

Julia: At one point, she got really upset with us.

Eleanor: I don't like this. I had more. Just a moment. They are--

Julia: Because we made the mistake of comparing the situation of DC to the territories, which also don't have voting representation in Congress, places like Puerto Rico and Guam.

Eleanor: These are completely different places.

Julia: It seemed almost like an insult to her to ask questions about this thing, which seems so obviously true.

Eleanor: With very single respect, except not having the final vote on the House floor, we are a state.

[notification tone]

Julia: What was that?

Eleanor: What do you think that was?

Ben: Probably your computer just having a notification.

Julia: The irony of this comes out almost cartoonishly when the press person that we talked to is in the room. Ben. He had told us that there was this buzzer that goes off in the office when there's a vote on the House floor. Ben was telling us about a sound that happens when there's a vote or something like that.

Eleanor: No, it was wasn't a vote.

Julia: What is that? I don't know what that is.

Eleanor: What is what?

[buzzer goes off]

Eleanor: Now, there's a vote.

[buzzer goes off]

Eleanor: When you hear the bell, you know there's a vote. This warns you that you have 15 minutes to go to the floor-

[buzzer goes off]

Eleanor: - or it may signal whether to vote on the rule or something else.

Julia: That is supposed to signal like get your butt over there, kind of thing?

Eleanor: It does mean that if you have a vote, you should be preparing to go to vote, yes.

Julia: For you, what does that signal to you or how does that beep make you feel?

Eleanor: That may mean I've been on the floor already to discuss the bill. I can discuss any bill including bills I can vote on, which is most bills, which are all bills. That doesn't keep you from going to the floor, speak on a bill. I'll be going to the floor to speak on the FAA bill where I have been able to--

Julia: I didn't know how to make sense of this irony. This woman who's been representing disempowered people all her life, she's almost choosing to be in a role with virtually no power and then insisting in these moments that she's not disempowered at all. If I were going to demand change, it seems like I would shout from the rooftops that I don't have a vote, that my job is completely different, that I'm completely disempowered.

In these moments, Eleanor Holmes Norton had almost this willful denial of the miserable situation that DC finds itself in. I only had about 15 minutes with Congresswoman Norton and I went home from DC totally baffled by the interaction. I started looking back at her speeches and her writings, deep, deep cuts on C-Span. I found this one panel from 1987 at the Sag Harbor Initiative. It was called the Retreat from Equality and it clarified things for me.

Eleanor: I do want to say something about the constitutional myth. Thurgood Marshall did a great service to the country in reminding it that revisionist history is very un-American and reminding us of the evolution of our own constitution, but it is very important that myth not be associated only with negative aspects of American life. No society continues to grow without its own powerful myths.

One of the only remaining powerful myths in American society with all of our diversity is the myth of the Constitution. The myth that all of us somehow have bought in whatever our religious or ethnic or political background into that wonderful, powerful myth. The fact that that myth has not always been real or true is quite beside the point. The myth of God is true for those who believe in God.

Even when there is war and famine and pestilence, it is the myth that makes people live through the pestilence so that they can indeed live full lives once again. The myth of the Constitution is in, a very real sense, the handiwork of Black people who enjoyed it to least when there was nothing but racism. They believed those words because they believe them, they ultimately made them live.

Black people, therefore, have to be at the forefront of those who celebrate the Constitution. Not because it is perfect, but because they have made it more perfect. One of the worst things we could do in a time when so little brings us together is to just try to debunk or destroy the one powerful myth that continues to animate the society. The myth of the great American Constitution, which has been copied all over the world and which continues to drive us to a more perfect society.

[applause]

Julia: In some ways, I think Eleanor Holmes Norton stands in for DC. She lives in a state of suspended denial in order to keep fighting. If she or Black people or women or any of the people who are not in the original "We the People," if we ever succumbed to our powerlessness, gave up, it would all be over. If Eleanor Holmes Norton keeps believing in the Constitution, believing in the myth that it tells us, the myth of her own power despite the odds, despite even the reality of her situation, maybe she can make her reality match the myth. I mean, hey, we got the 23rd Amendment, didn't we?

[music]

Jad: That was Julia Longoria reporting for More Perfect. Now, as I mentioned, Eleanor Holmes Norton has been at the center of this recent push to make DC a state. The resolution passed in the House in June of this year. We should admit, it's unlikely to pass the Senate in large part because Republicans are almost universally opposed to it. However, we are living in turbulent times, my friends. You never know. When we come back from break, we will have another little DC story also about the power to vote. We will see how now the winds might be starting to blow in a different direction, might.

[music]

Jad: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. Jad, Radiolab, we just heard a story we did a few years ago for the most perfect album about the 23rd Amendment and DC trying to get statehood. To continue the theme now, we're going to play another piece from that same More Perfect series on the amendments. Another story that seems to resonate with a lot of things swirling around us all right now. This one was two amendments down on the 25th Amendment and it came to us from reporter Sarah Qari. After we play the original, Sarah will have a little update for us from the streets. Here we go.

Sarah Qari: It all starts around World War II.

Narrator: In September 1940, the Selective Service Act was passed. For the first time in history, American boys were being drafted-

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt: You have the confidence-

Narrator: - during peacetime.

US President Roosevelt: - and the gratitude and the love of your countrymen.

Sarah: During World War II, you had all of these young men who were about to be sent overseas. Many of whom were 18 but still didn't have the right to vote because in a lot of states at that time, the voting age was still 21.

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower: For years, our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have been summoned to fight for America.

Sarah: To a lot of people, that didn't seem fair.

US President Eisenhower: They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summit.

Sarah: The moment where people really, really start to get mad about this is Vietnam.

Reporter: Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War assembled in the nation's capital for a mass protest.

Protesters: Hell no, we won't go. Hell no, we won't go.

Sarah: They came up with this phrase.

Speaker 4: Old enough to fight. Old enough to vote.

Sarah: Old enough to fight at 18, die at 18, old enough to vote at 18. With that-

US President Richard Nixon: It is particularly appropriate that on this same day-

Sarah: - in 1971-

US President Nixon: - we are certifying the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Sarah: - the 26th Amendment is ratified in just 100 days, faster than any other amendment in the Constitution.

[people cheering]

Sarah: Actually, it's interesting to think about this amendment now because some young people recently have started to feel like 18 isn't good enough.

Reporter: Up next, the youth vote gets a little bit younger. A group of teenagers has formed a campaign called Vote16USA. They want to lower the voting age to 16 in cities across the country.

Sarah: Hello.

Alec Shire: Hi.

Sarah: Hi, Alec. Is that you?

Alec: Yes, it's me. Hi Sarah.

Sarah: How are you?

Alec: I'm good.

Sarah: This is Alec Shire-

Alec: - and from Washington, DC. I'm 16 years old.

Sarah: What kinds of things do you do besides political stuff?

Alec: I work at a kombucha stand.

Sarah: Nice.

Alec: That's just at my local farmer's market, yes, and then I'm also a host at another neighborhood restaurant.

Sarah: Alec has been in the news a bit recently.

Reporter: The idea here is to lower DC's voting age to 16.

Sarah: He's an activist with this organization called Vote16DC, which has gotten behind this bill in his hometown of Washington, DC to lower the voting age.

Reporter: After the Parkland, Florida shooting, DC would become the first jurisdiction to allow minors to vote for a president.

Sarah: Interestingly, Alec told me that that same argument from the Vietnam era-

Speaker 4: Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.

Sarah: - it's come back around but in a new form.

Reporter: It was, "Oh, no, not again. Another high school."

Sarah: All of the school shootings that have happened-

Speaker 5: Deadly shooting at a high school in Kentucky.

Speaker 6: In Rockford.

Speaker 7: In Southern California.

Speaker 8: In Santa Fe.

Speaker 9: Littleton, Colorado.

Sarah: - they've created that same sense that if people are dying-

Speaker 10: Newton Elementary School.

Sarah: - they deserve to have their voices heard.

Alec: I think it's really frustrating for me personally that it's taking us being shot in schools for people to be like, "You know what? I'll give you the right to vote."

Sarah: Alec actually says that he should have that right for more basic reasons.

Alec: I just think that every two weeks, I get a paycheck and I get taxes taken out. You know where those tax dollars go. They go into the council members' paychecks and the council members get to vote on budgets that include my hard-earned money and they get to decide where that goes.

Sarah: Not only that, he says that young people are already behind the wheel.

Alec: We're going 60 miles an hour, but you don't want us to walk into a voting booth and click a couple of boxes and make an informed decision. We drive a car. When we go in to apply for a license, we can choose whether or not we want to be an organ donor or not.

Sarah: The basic point is if you trust us to pay taxes, you trust us to drive, you trust us to be part of the decision to donate an organ, then you should trust us to vote. Here's the thing, right? When I went out on election day to ask people, do you think 16-year-olds should be able to vote? If they thought this was a good idea, most of them were like-

Interviewee 1: No.

Interviewee 2: No.

Interviewee 3: I don't think so.

Interviewee 4: No, I don't think so.

Interviewee 5: Not at all.

Interviewee 6: I don't think 16-year-olds should vote.

Interviewee 7: Absolutely not. That's around the time they're getting into marijuana. Their judgment is off.

Interviewee 8: No.

Interviewee 9: Is that a thing that people are talking about?

Sarah: I even have a 16-year-old tell me that 16-year-olds shouldn't vote.

Interviewee 10: There's a lot of kids who are really stupid and don't know anything about politics that are my age.

Sarah: I asked for a why. Most people that I talked to like that guy, they just had this gut feeling that 16 is really different from 18.

Interviewee 11: 16, you're still a child. You're still a kid.

Interviewee 12: 16 is not a grown-up.

Interviewee 13: There are certain things that are wrong with that age.

Interviewee 14: They might not be as informed about these issues.

Interviewee 15: I'm thinking of my kids when they were 16.

Alec: People constantly are coming up to me after events. They look at me and they say, "Alec, I trust you more to vote than me. I trust you to make a more informed decision than I trust myself, but what about the other 16, 17-year-olds?"

Interviewee 16: Just looking at social media, perhaps it gives you maybe a sense of that kind of 16-year-old.

Sarah: Now, to be fair-- I'm just wondering if I could ask you a quick question.

Seth Meyers: Go for it.

Sarah: At one point, somebody did think differently. Do you think 16-year-olds should be able to vote?

Seth: That's a good question that I put absolutely no thought into.

Sarah: Weirdly enough, that's Seth Meyers, the late-night talk show host. He was voting right where I happen to be gathering tape. What's your gut reaction?

Seth: My gut reaction is you could let 16-year-old votes and we wouldn't be any worse off.

Sarah: Do you know you're like the only person who said that?

Seth: Yes. I believe-- I don't know. Now, I'm starting to doubt my answer, but I'm going to stand by it. Maybe that's because that's my demo.

Sarah: Thanks. Take care. As the day wore on, I actually did encounter more people who felt like maybe it's different now. All the musicians they're listening to are also talking about politics and TV has politics, so maybe they're more important. Maybe 16 today is different from 16 back in the day.

Interviewee 17: I'm trying to think whether or not they would have a very strong opinion. With gun violence going on, they probably do.

Interviewee 18: Yes. Today's most 16-year-olds are mature enough to understand what's going on definitely.

Sarah: Now, from a psychological perspective.

Laurence Steinberg: By the time people are 16, their abilities to make thoughtful, deliberate decisions to consult with experts when they wanted advice, those abilities by the time people are 16 are no worse than the abilities of adults.

Sarah: That's Laurence Steinberg.

Laurence: Professor of psychology at Temple University.

Sarah: He says that the research out there seems to suggest that, cognitively, the average 16-year-old isn't that different from the average 18-year-old. They're both equally likely to make bad decisions. It almost sounds like it's not that adults are smarter than 16-year-olds. It's that 16-year-olds are just as stupid as adults.

Laurence: [chuckles] I guess you could look at it that way or let's just say that the proportion of 16-year-olds who are stupid is no greater than the proportion of adults who are stupid.

Sarah: If that's the case and it really is true that the average 16-year-old today is more politically aware than 16-year-olds in the past, then it really is hard to think of a reason why they shouldn't have the ability to vote.

Alec: Right now, 16, 17-year-olds, me personally, I have nothing that a politician wants. You lower the voting age to 16, they actually come to us and they're going to actually start to care about us.

Sarah: When I spoke to Alec, the vote in the DC Council was a couple of months away. He was super optimistic that the bill had the votes that it needed in order to pass and that it would become the law of our nation's capital.

Alec: If this does pass, you will see 16, 17-year-olds voting in 2020. I will be 18 at that time, but I know we'd like up early that morning and I'm going to take my neighbor who's going to be 16 at the time. I'm taking him to go vote and be like, "You're going to be the first 16-year-old in the history of this country to vote for president."

Chairman: Bill 22-778, Youth Vote Amendment Act of 2018. Councilmember Allen?

Councilmember Charles Allen: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Sarah: Finally, last week, the DC Council met to decide the fate of the bill.

Councilmember Allen: Earlier this spring, we watched incredible voices take the helm and lead our country. We saw incredible voices talk about gun violence. We saw incredible voices talk about action. We saw incredible voices lead a national conversation that the adults had not done. What we saw were young people stepping up to lead and those young people were, in many cases, 16 and 17-year-olds.

Sarah: That was Councilmember Charles Allen, who opened with that statement in support of the bill, but after him, another council member spoke.

Chairman: Mr. Evans.

Sarah: Jack Evans.

Councilmember Jack Evans: Mr. Chairman, again, there's this significant unreadiness on behalf of some of the council members, majority of the council members. I'm going to make a motion to table this bill at this time.

Sarah: He proposed a motion to basically kill the bill.

Chairman: There's a motion before us to table the bill. A motion to table is not debatable.

Sarah: The 13 council members then voted on whether or not to table the bill and-

Councilmember Anita Bonds: Yes.

Moderator: Councilmember Bonds votes yes. Councilmember Cheh?

Councilmember Mary Cheh: Yes.

Moderator: Councilmember Cheh votes yes. Councilmember Evans?

Councilmember Evans: Yes.

Moderator: Councilmember Evans votes yes. Councilmember Gray?

Councilmember Vincent Gray: No.

Moderator: Councilmember Gray votes no. Councilmember Grosso?

Councilmember David Grosso: No.

Moderator: Councilmember Grosso votes no.

Sarah: To make the long story short.

Councilmember Allen: No.

Moderator: Councilmember Allen votes no. Mr. Chairman, there are seven yeses and six nos.

Chairman: All the measures tabled.

Sarah: For the moment, 16-year-olds are not going to be voting in Washington, DC in 2020, but that's just for the moment.

[music]

Jad: Okay, so that was November of 2018. What has happened with Alec?

Sarah: How's it going?

Alec: I'm good. Here, let me try to start recording now.

Sarah: Yes.

Alec: Okay. Sounds good.

Sarah: I called him up to find out.

Alec: Yes, I'm all good.

Sarah: Amazing. I'm so happy to be talking to you again. It's been so long.

Jad: He's probably 18 now or is he about to be 18?

Sarah: Yes, so he's 18.

Alec: I am, yes. [laughs]

Sarah: You're legal voting age now.

Alec: I'm legal voting age. I voted for the first time in June in the primary with a little lot of infill.

Sarah: Because of the pandemic, he and his mom decided to vote by mail. He was like, "Yes, it was a little bit anti-climactic."

Alec: We had a little photoshoot out of it, but it was a little-- I wanted a little bit more drama.

Sarah: Beyond his voting status, he just graduated from high school.

Alec: Literally, a month ago.

Sarah: Oh, congrats on graduating. Amazing.

Alec: Thank you.

Sarah: He's going to be a freshman in the fall at DePaul University in Chicago.

Alec: Knock on wood because right now, it's like, "Oh, you have no clue, but just stay tuned." I'm like, "Okay."

Sarah: It was cool to catch him at this time because he was looking back on what he's done and looking back on the last two years in a way. Before I go there, I will say the movement itself, there's been some small incremental progress that they've made. Last year in March, in the US House of Representatives, Representative Ayanna Pressley actually proposed an amendment to another bill that was being considered that would lower the voting age in all federal elections, so not local but all federal elections.

Jad: Interesting.

Sarah: Yes. The 126 members of the House of Representatives actually voted yes on that amendment.

Jad: Really? 126 out of-- What's the total number again?

Sarah: I want to say it's like-

Jad: 400 something?

Sarah: - 435 plus a few non-voting members. That's quite a few, but it's probably not likely to happen at the federal level, especially I'm thinking about the Senate anytime soon. At the same time, in DC where this bill got tabled by one vote, there are three council seats opening up, which means that two opponents of the bill are on their way out and at least one of the likely incoming members who's already won the primary seems pretty supportive of lowering the voting age. I talked to Councilmember Charles Allen, who originally introduced the bill. He told me that he's hopeful that the votes are in their favor and that he'd like to reintroduce it. All of which for somebody like Alec is pretty encouraging.

Jad: Yes, it is.

Sarah: Another thing that's happened in the time since is there's-- at least in some places like in San Francisco, there is going to be a ballot question in November that would lower the voting age to 16 for all local elections. Back in 2016, they had the same ballot question and it only lost by four percentage points. It does seem like there are cities where the idea is being considered seriously and it does seem to be a thing that is gaining more attraction over time. Beyond these maybe hopeful things, Alec told me that he just thinks the whole conversation around this issue has shifted.

Alec: The bigger shift has been that their arguments that they used against us two years ago that young people do not have enough skin in the game and they do not have enough knowledge, I think that this past couple of months have shown that that is absolutely not true.

Sarah: That all of the reasons that 16-year-olds have just as much skin in the game as people older than them, they're all just intensified in this new world that we live in.

Alec: I have friends who work in restaurants. I have friends who work at grocery stores or clothing stores. I have so many friends who are essential workers.

Sarah: A lot of 16-year-olds have jobs at pharmacies and things like that that could be considered essential by a lot of standards. On top of that, Alec told me--

Alec: We have a lot of people who want to rush us back into school.

Sarah: That's something that 16 and 17-year-olds have a direct stake in. In a lot of ways, the pandemic has just added this layer of why 16-year-olds are actually quite relevant to the conversation.

Jad: Yes.

Alec: How do you know how well DC public schools are working when you don't even want to have the very people who go to those schools five days a week for eight hours a day have any say in that?

Sarah: The other thing that Alec told me is that his thinking has really changed around like, how do you fight to even have your say? In the story that we told where he was trying to do this two years ago, he'd done a lot of shaking hands. He'd done a lot of showing up at the council member's office and saying the right words.

Alec: The kind of the respectability politics and playing nice and smiling for the cameras. If I could go back and change one thing, I do wish that we would have been a little bit more loud and been a little bit more in-your-face to a lot of these elected officials. Just being able to see with my own eyes and from my experience that playing nice and playing by the rules is exactly what people who don't want us to succeed, that's exactly what they want us to do.

Sarah: He essentially said to me like instead of showing up to the council member's office and shaking hands, I wish we'd done like a die-in where every few minutes, we represented how many 16-year-olds were dying of gun violence.

Alec: Okay. This council member doesn't believe that we have enough skin in the game, so we're going to stage a die-in in their office. I think by literally showing them with our skin that we are not going anywhere and that if they vote against this bill, they're voting against the 30 young people who are currently laying down in their office with a dozen members of the press all filming.

Sarah: It was really interesting to see his radicalization in a way as a social activist. Not just because the vote fell through, but also because I think now, he's seeing that in so many ways, it goes beyond just not being able to vote. There's so many other ways that young people around him are disenfranchised, and especially on people of color.

Alec: Because if you look at the protests that have happened in Minneapolis or in DC, it was young people of color who were getting beat by police officers. I have numerous, numerous, numerous friends who were tear-gassed for Trump to make his photo op that one night in front of the church.

Sarah: No way.

Alec: Yes, and they were able to submit testimony to the ACLU, who is actually suing for that action.

Jad: Wow.

Sarah: He was telling me actually as a DC resident, it's been really weird to watch because DC, when the protests started, was flooded with National Guard forces like hundreds from different states.

Alec: We had troops from five different states down here at one time.

Sarah: Wow.

Alec: Yes, like ICE and CBP were out.

Sarah: All of these federal officers coming in.

Alec: Me and my friends were like, "Oh." That's eleven o'clock at night and a giant military helicopter carrying 25 armed soldiers just flew by my house. There was probably like a solid two weeks where it was full-on.

Sarah: Through all of that, I think Alec, he saw this like double disenfranchisement in a way. A lot of people respond to that, including DC's mayor responded to that being like, "This is why we need statehood."

Alec: In DC, we don't have any autonomy over that.

Sarah: We don't have a governor. We don't have senators.

Alec: As much as our mayor was like, "No, thank you," Trump could do essentially what he wanted. My friend took a photo of outside the Lincoln Memorial. Every third step, there was a whole row of armed officials.

Sarah: I think all around him, he's been seeing examples of disenfranchisement of all kinds that goes beyond just being under the voting age, but also just people going out and fighting it.

[music]

Jad: Reporter Sarah Qari. Okay. That's all for today. Special thanks to DC Councilmember Charles Allen. Don't forget to check out Latif's show on Netflix called Connected. If you want to hear stories about the rest of the amendments, plus songs for each amendment written and performed by some incredible musicians, including Dolly, go to mostperfectalbum.org and you can listen to them all there. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thank you for listening.

Yuan: Hi, I'm Yuan from Vienna. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg, our fact-checker.

 

Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.