Give children the right to vote?

by Micah on August 28, 2003

I’m taking a course on election law, and the professor mentioned a proposal today that I hadn’t heard about before. He said there’s a movement in Germany to propose a constitutional amendment that would give children the right to vote from birth. I thought he was pulling our leg at first, but listen to this segment on NPR. The idea is that parents (or principal care givers) would act as proxies for children by voting on their behalf. According to proponents, this would have two benefits. First, it would give politicians greater reason to care about family and children’s issues. Second, in an effort to correct for Germany’s declining birth rate and rapidly aging population, it would give people greater incentive to have more children. (A quick search turns up some other proposals of this kind floating around, from the sophomoric to the more considered (by Gillian Thomas at Demos) to the academic manifesto (by Duncan Lindsey at UCLA.)

I think the population growth rationale is very bad. There are lots of ways to provide incentives for population growth without altering the voting system. Some form of subsidy for having children seems like an obvious mechanism. It would certainly be a lot easier to retract a subsidy when the target population level is reached. Retracting the suffrage is notoriously difficult—and usually for good reason. This rationale also assumes, of course, that increasing population in Germany (or elsewhere, for that matter) is a good thing. Since I don’t know anything about German demographics, I’ll leave it up to someone else to pursue that line.

More generally, what about the argument that children lack adequate representation? I think this is probably right, but the institutional problems with proxy-voting seem insurmountable. There are principal-agent problems, incentives for strategic voting, and the more basic question of whether it’s fair to allocate proxy-votes in the first place. Still, the proposal raises some interesting questions about institutional solutions for problems of intergenerational justice. Place yourself in the original position and ask: if I didn’t know how old I would be when the veil is lifted, what principles of political representation would I favor? One-(adult) person, one vote?

{ 32 comments }

1

Keith M Ellis 08.28.03 at 7:43 am

The fundamental issue is not qualitatively different here than it is in, say, literacy requirements for enfrichesment. That is to say, there is considerable tension between the competing social goods of a) competency requirements and b) maximum enfranchisement. Modern democracies have come to see enfranchisement as an essential human right and give it priority over competency. Most people take it for granted that children are prima facie incompetent, but I’m not convinced the political awareness competency gap between adults and children is as great as is the gap between the corresponding representation of interests. Would direct (not proxy) child voting lead to literal legistlated Bread and Circuses? Maybe. But how is that any different from the status quo?

When I encountered this idea (direct children enfranchisement, not just proxy enfranchisement) fourteen years ago, I thought it was absurd. Now I lean the other way.

2

Doug 08.28.03 at 7:57 am

The discussion is serious, but still relatively fringe. I first bumped into it five years ago, when I did a little work with a group called the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations .

Quick notes on Micah’s points: 1. Subsidies for having children already exist in Germany. I don’t know how big they are, and while they figure into the way that people plan their life with children, the subsidies do not have an effect on the decision to have a child. (No matter what the Republicans try to tell you about welfare.) Here in Germany, declining birth rates are a hundred-year trend, and a subsidy is not going to make a dent in it. In fact, the subsidy has been around nearly forty years without making a dent in birth rates. And I feel safe in predicting that extending suffrage to babies will have no impact on birth rates.

2. From the point of view of paying for Germany’s welfare state, the country’s demographics – like almost all other European countries’ – hold dire prospects for the future. The age pyramid is turning into a column. Doric, Ionic or Corinthian, it doesn’t matter; a system that was designed to have six or seven workers contributing for every retiree is rapidly approaching three to one and may reach one to one in a few decades. The country’s social security system cannot be financed as it is now over the long term. (This problem is being addressed from many different angles – starting working lives earlier, ending them later, getting more people into work period, adding more private provision for retirement, and beginning to encourage immigration – but it’s a hard problem.)

3. The argument being made seems to be that voting is a moral right, inherent in the person. I don’t think much of that argument (should caretakers vote on behalf of the insane, the retarded and the comatose, for example), or any of its practical consequences for this issue, so I hope it stays on the fringe.

3

Brett 08.28.03 at 2:08 pm

This is a transparent(!) attempt to arrogate more political power to adults who have children, as though the politicians don’t already boogie to their tune. It’s no more for the benefit the children than most other assaults on individual liberty.

4

Francisco 08.28.03 at 2:12 pm

The “Sudbury Valley” schooling system results suggest it wouldn’t be a “bread and circuses” goverment. I think teenagers specially would take the issues at hand very seriously.
See http://www.sudval.org/ for the Sudbury Valley School.

5

G. DeeDee 08.28.03 at 3:01 pm

I don’t know about Germany but in the where I come from too few vote in the first place. Why give the many parents the right to proxy vote if many aren’t voting marking their own ballot in the first place?

Oddly, from my POV, it seems undemocratic to impose the choice of a parent on a child even if that child is not able to cast for himself. What if the child grows up to have profoundly different views than the parent who voted? Why not wait until the child is old enought to make his (or her) own decision? Though lowering the voting rate to 14 or 16 might be a good idea.

Besides, who on earth would have a child so they can have an extra vote? People have children for many reasons. I doubt that is one of them.

6

Tina 08.28.03 at 3:26 pm

I, too, am offended that this debate is about children and not youth. Clearly, young people, ages 12-18, are disenfranchised. We should be debating the process for extending real voting power to these people, rather than focusing on parental votes for children.

7

Brian Weatherson 08.28.03 at 4:00 pm

I agree with Tina. The idea of having parents vote on behalf of toddlers seems quite bizarre to me. But that’s a completely different issue from whether 12 year olds, or 14 year olds, or (especially) 16 year olds should be able to vote. It’s really hard to see a principled reason for saying 16 and 17 year olds are in general incompetent to vote. Of course if we don’t think toddlers should vote then there will always be some kind of arbitrary cut-off point, but it’s hard to see what could justify it being so high.

There may be partisan reasons for opposing this extension of the franchise, but denying groups of people the vote because they won’t vote for you is one of the most despicable things a political organisation can do.

On the other hand, having parents vote on behalf of their _teenage_ children is probably quite a bit worse than the present system, so we should be thankful for small mercies.

8

Stentor 08.28.03 at 4:21 pm

Doug’s point about the ineffectiveness of childbearing subsidies is encouraging. Anyone who would decide to have a kid in order to get another vote strikes me as not the kind of person I’d want raising the next generation.

9

alkali 08.28.03 at 4:57 pm

“… the institutional problems with proxy-voting seem insurmountable…”

(1) Compared with the institutional problems associated with voting by adults, they are not particularly serious.

(2) Even if they were, they wouldn’t justify denying a person representation.

10

alkali 08.28.03 at 4:59 pm

Doug writes:

“…should caretakers vote on behalf of the insane, the retarded and the comatose, for example …”

Why not?

11

Chris 08.28.03 at 5:06 pm

I think the antis are being far too dismissive here.

If we start with the notion that the political system should treat everyone with equal concern and respect, then it looks as if we have a problem. After all, the persons who should so be treated ought to include children, but whereas others have the opportunity to pursue their interests through the ballot box, children do not.

Problem: children are incompetent to vote (and incompetent to pursue their own interests effectively in a number of other spheres as well, btw).

Options:

(1) Status quo. Children’s interests are unrepresented, or represented via the choices of those who care about them in a manner which detracts from those people pursuing their own interests.

(2) Parents have proxy votes for their children. All interests are now represented, and children get represented by those to whom we entrust the pursuit of their interests in nearly all other contexts (school choice, choice of breakfast cereal, which make of car they get transported in, where they go on holiday, which TV programmes are unsuitable etc etc).

(3) We institutionalise representation of children’s interests in some other way (special commissioner? child care specialists nominated to the House of Lords? etc etc. A possibility, but why entrust to the “great and the good” here and not in those other contexts.

Sure, parents casting votes for children sounds crazy (to me too). But the alternatives of their interests being unrepresented or their being represented not by the people who know them best but by middle-class worthies don’t do a whole lot for me either.

I think the demographic point is interesting too (though the incentive argument is bizarre and unattractive). Once upon a time, having children was the norm. So the notion that the head of household could in some sense stand for the interests of all in that household, though lamentable and sexist, had a sort of rough-and-ready merit. (There’s a kind of imperfect proxy voting by individuals on behalf of families involved). But with declining birthrates and a great increase in voluntary childlessness, there’s a shift away from even an indirect representation of such interests (and indeed of the interests of future generations) in favour of those of the childless. Naturally, we don’t want to go back to anything as patriarchal and offensive as the system I just mentioned, but finding some way of getting childrens interests into the design of political instututions looks right.

12

raj 08.28.03 at 6:02 pm

“There are lots of ways to provide incentives for population growth without altering the voting system. Some form of subsidy for having children seems like an obvious mechanism.”

Just to point out, Germany already has a form of subsidy–it’s called Kindergeld (child money).

This proposal strikes me as kind of silly if the proponents believe that it will increase the birth rate.

13

Neel Krishnaswami 08.28.03 at 6:20 pm

The kindergeld is about 150 euros a month. I doubt this is big enough to have a large impact, but I don’t doubt that if it were larger (ten times larger, say) then it would have a pretty big impact on the number of children being born. Also, I think that the idea of European birth rates going up is not at all absurd; after all, the US saw birth rates increase very strongly in the 1990s, and it’s the other half of the industrialized world. Even more strikingly, the birth rates were lower in the US than in Europe in 1980! Birth rates aren’t some magic constant, they are the product of decisions that people make. Change the incentives, and people will change their decisions.

14

Brian Weatherson 08.28.03 at 6:20 pm

Chris’s points are quite good I think at bringing out the comparisons between proxy voting and the other ways of representing children’s interests. But none of his arguments show, I think, that proxy voting is a particularly _good_ way of representing children’s interests as much as they show that other ways are _bad_.

Indeed, given the problems with all methods other than self-representation, we probably should rethink the premise that children are not ‘competent’ to represent their own interests. Competence here presumably comes in degrees. The question we should be asking isn’t the vague “Are children competent to vote?” but “Are they competent enough that they’ll do a better job of representing their interests better than the alternative methods we have available?”.

Actually, even that’s too coarse, because 7 year olds and 17 year olds are hardly on a par here. Perhaps the question is, “At what age are children competent enough at representing their own interests that it would be better to have them doing so than to institute one of the alternative methods?” Now some paternalists may think that the answer here is _Never_, and we should always have representation by the great and the good. But if we’re democrats then I think we have to have a strong presumption in favour of the view that people are best judges of their own interests. And if we approach the question in that spirit, I think the answer is probably in the range of 11 to 14. So I’m inclined to think that the voting age should be around about there.

Of course, this leaves open the question about what to do about children younger than 11. Here the arguments for proxy voting might become more salient.

One quick worry about proxy voting. I think it’s very unlikely that the interests of children (meaning now under-11s) will always match up with the interests of their parents. I also think it’s unlikely one would see guardian voters casting proxy votes in the opposite direction to their personal vote in more than a handful of occasions. This makes me wonder just how good a job of _representation_ proxy voting will do. Maybe I’m underestimating the integrity of guardians here.

15

chris 08.28.03 at 6:46 pm

Brian,

I’m probably more sceptical than you are about the capacity of teenagers effectively to pursue their own interests. But, of course, much of the time it is going to be right to let them be sovereign even if someone else would choose better, since otherwise they’d never learn. I’m not sure that voting is on a par with drinking and sex here though!

“I think it’s very unlikely that the interests of children (meaning now under-11s) will always match up with the interests of their parents. “

So do I. But that “always” is an impossibly tough standard. Better to ask through which of a range of imperfect mechanisms children’s interests get better represented.

16

alkali 08.28.03 at 6:54 pm

Brian writes:

“I think it’s very unlikely that the interests of children (meaning now under-11s) will always match up with the interests of their parents.”

Always? I think that’s unlikely too — I daresay that even adults don’t always vote their own interests. But the question isn’t whether a proxy vote is a perfect substitute for how the child him/herself would hypothetically vote, the question is whether the proxy vote is better than no vote at all.

17

micah 08.28.03 at 7:11 pm

“Anyone who would decide to have a kid in order to get another vote strikes me as not the kind of person I’d want raising the next generation.”

My initial post might have been sort of misleading on this point, so I think I should try to clarify here a little. The way I understand the incentive argument, it’s not that parents will have more children to get more votes. Rather, it’s that a political system that takes account of children’s interests will promote social policies that make it easier for families to have more children (e.g., increased family leave, child care, child-subsidies, etc.).

Call this the “indirect incentives” argument. When people are contemplating having children (or another child), they should ask whether they will be able to provide appropriate care for their children. The way in which government sets social policy regarding children might contribute to how potential parents go about answering that question. From a policy perspective, I don’t have the slightest clue as to what programs actually provide parents with strong incentives for having children. But I think this is the line of argument that people who favor children’s suffrage are getting at.

18

Tina 08.28.03 at 8:34 pm

“Rather, it’s that a political system that takes account of children’s interests will promote social policies that make it easier for families to have more children.”

I would like to think that it works this way, too. But if the claims of those above are correct, and the US birthrate in the 1990s increased while Western Europe’s was stagnant, then we can’t conclude that family-friendly policies impact birthrate. Clearly, Germany’s social policies (and most of Europe’s) are WAY more family-friendly than the US’s.

I suggest we move away from a rational choice mentality when thinking about childbearing. I’d suggest cultural factors, such as gender norms and social valuation of motherhood, as one starting place, and structural factors, such as gender inequality in wage earnings, as another.

19

raj 08.28.03 at 8:44 pm

Having just returned from several weeks in Munich, anecdotal evidence suggests to me that they are having a bit of a baby boomlet at least in that area of Germany. Certainly in comparison to, say 15 years ago.

Italy seems to be having a bit of a baby boomlet as well.

FWIW, from appearances–which may admittedly be deceiving–the boomlets appear to be among european types.

20

back40 08.28.03 at 10:25 pm

The science is not settled but there seems to be a brain maturity issue worth considering. Much of the human brain is developed by about 11 or 12 years of age, varying by sex and individual. But important parts, such as the temporal lobes which are though to be important for social thinking, don’t mature until 16 years or so.

Sex hormones are related to brain maturation which therefore necessarily lags sexual maturity. It seems there would be some amount of time needed for humans to learn to use their newly matured brains, adding another time lag to maturity. How important is it that humans younger than 18 or so may not have mature brains or have learned to use their newly mature brains?

History is filled with practical wisdom about the proper age for various acts. It’s interesting that the old traditions of considering 13 years to be enough for some types of binding commitments map well to general physical maturity of the brain (but not the temporal lobes). Jews have strong views on this as do other religions. Anabaptists are interesting in this regard in that one of their founding beliefs in conflict with Catholicism is that each human must choose to join the church when they have grown rather than be baptized as babies. Modern Anabaptists such as the Amish are known for their wild children who (often) grow up to be good church members after having experimented with drugs and promiscuity as youths. Some don’t choose to join the church, which seems to validate the principle.

21

alkali 08.28.03 at 11:01 pm

I would point out that the question of whether children should be formally represented in the electoral process (I would answer yes) seems to be a separate question from how children are to be formally represented (I would answer by proxy vote at least for young children, and perhaps by direct vote for near-adults).

Putting it another way, it doesn’t follow from the obvious fact that babies can’t vote that they should not be represented in elections.

22

Michael 08.28.03 at 11:07 pm

I am a parent of a 2 year old (Isobel) in Australia and I can honestly say that I have never felt more disenfranchised and disappointed by the difference between the rhetoric of “family friendly” policies and the reality. An 50’s style sitcom family (dad at work in the office with a stay at home mum and two happy, well adjusted sprogs) would do well given current policies. Anyone else has an almightly battle to raise their children well and avoid becoming a workaholic or destitute.

Having an additional vote for my wife and I to use to ensure that Isobel’s needs were taken seriously by society would be bound to help.

23

Jonas Cord 08.28.03 at 11:27 pm

I’ve always presumed that while children lack the full rights and priveledges of adults, this was (theoretically) meant to be offset by the various protections granted to them, in light of the obvious vulnerablities that come with childhood. One need not make a case of rape against a child – even consentual sex is illegal for protective measure. Children, again theoretically, are not liable for crimes they commit when they reach adulthood.

Now, such distinctions are eroding. I would rather see the protective regime brought back for children, but if it is not – and children continue to be tried as adults in court – I say it’s about time they enjoyed the rights and priveledges of adults if they have de facto adult responsibilities (i.e. avoid murder and other ‘adult offenses’.) So yes, I’m arguing that kids should be legally allowed to drive, vote, drink, smoke and fuck – but only because it makes my point more memorable.

24

pathos 08.29.03 at 3:14 am

A couple of questions:

1. What the heck is a “proxy vote by the parents”? Is “parents” now a singular noun? I am a Democrat and my wife is a Republican. Who gets the extra vote? We cancel each other out every election now, do we each get an extra half to cancel each other out even further? Or do we lose it completely if we don’t agree with each other on how to use it?

2. Are those in favor or lowering the voting age (directly) in favor of lowering the age for other things as well? Drafted into the military at 12 or 14 or 16? Sentenced as an adult for all crimes? Free to marry without parental consent? Will punishment no longer be appropriate when a 45 year old man has “consensual” sex with a 13 year old girl, since they are both voting-age adults?

Yes, I’m sure everyone reading this had very strong, well-reasoned political opinions in junior high. And yes, schools would probably be better funded if children had a vote. But when I think about 16 year olds, and all the things they are not “grown up enough” for, I can see the obvious reason why moving from 21 to 18 was quite far enough.

25

Robert T McQuaid 08.29.03 at 10:01 am

I have often thought favorably of allowing parents to
cast a vote on behalf of their minor children. But
there is a dangerous trap in the phrase:

The idea is that parents (or principal care givers)
would act as proxies for children by voting on their
behalf.

Welfare benefits for children are often assignable, that
is, if custody of children is changed, the benefit goes
to the new custodian. So children entitled to such
benefits have a bounty on their heads payable to any
social service agency with the power to alter custody, a
source of great abuse in current child protection
systems. To avoid custody manipulation for political
gain, child suffrage has to be immune from reassignment
by social services.

As for giving real political power to children, here is
another point to consider. In a historically authentic
scene in the movie The Killing Fields, a hay wagon
accompanied by a contingent of soldiers enters a
village. A nine-year-old child on the top of the hay
wagon points to two villagers. The soldiers pull them
over and kill them. The Salem witchcraft trials show a
similar abuse when adults took the rantings of children
seriously.

26

Nabakov 08.29.03 at 10:33 am

We’ve already seen how proxy vote systems can be abused in the corporate world.

On the other hand, I reckon if they’re old enough to menustrate, ejaculate and be issued with credit cards, they’re old enough to be issued ballot papers as well.

And I don’t know about youse guys and girls, but when I was a teenager, I was considerable more idealistic, open-minded and public-spirited then I am now.

27

Matt McIrvin 08.29.03 at 6:38 pm

Given the number of bad ideas that make it into law because somebody shouted “Won’t anyone think of the children?”, I’d be wary of anything that would tend to abet that.

28

Matt McIrvin 08.29.03 at 6:58 pm

michael: I’m not so sure that having an additional proxy vote for your kid would help you, because that ’50s style sitcom family that likes the current system would get twice as many proxy votes as you, and people with ten children would have ten times as many. If their interests conflicted with yours, you might not be so happy.

In the US, my guess is the immediate effect of proxy votes for kids would be to increase the influence of religious conservatives with huge families by a factor of several, and make them the overwhelmingly dominant voting bloc nationally. That shouldn’t be a contributor to the abstract question of whether this is right or wrong, but it is worth considering when thinking about the practical consequences.

29

Robert Schwartz 08.29.03 at 11:11 pm

Lord of the Flies. It is apparent that many of the folks who have posted above have not raised children, and don’t spend enough time with teenagers. I have three children ages 21, 19 and 16. I favor raising the voting age to 21, the age for driver’s licences to 18 and lowring the drinking age to 16. Oh yes and the 40 shilling freehold was not such a bad idea.

30

Rana 08.31.03 at 2:40 am

I’d say that if the children (or young adults) in question have to pay taxes on the money they earn, and are citizens, then they should have the right to vote. For me, it’s less a matter of competence (there are some incredibly doltish and irresponsible “adults” out there) than of balancing responsibilities and privileges. In other words, it might be worth thinking about what it means to be a participating member of a society — if a person is actively involved in the larger social order, having a say in the running of things would seem to be just. This does raise questions about various categories of currently eligible-to-vote populations, however.

31

dave heasman 09.01.03 at 1:19 pm

How about a vote for dead people? For, say, 5 years after they died? Assigned, like the children’s vote above, to the carer? Might produce some curbing of the autogeddon society f’rexample?

32

mef 10.07.03 at 2:12 pm

There’s a fundamental contradiction here. If we say children’s interests aren’t represented in the electoral system — as I’ve heard it represented, the politicans don’t have to address issues that effect children because children don’t vote — we must be assuming that their parents aren’t taking the children’s best interest into account when voting (and that childless adults don’t care either). But if we redress this by giving children the vote via their parents, these votes will be cast by the people we’ve just assumed aren’t voting in the children’s best interests under the current system.

Do people REALLY think that, as it is, adults (with children or without) don’t already vote with the knowledge that schools, social services, child welfare programs and the like, are not important?

And it’s not as if they’re discussing giving the vote to children only on issues of direct bearing on the lives of children. What does a 2-year-old think about the death penalty? I don’t know, let’s give his parents an extra vote and see what they think.

By the way — when the parents split up, who gets custody of the child’s vote?

And finally, in my own family, all of us in the younger generation are flaming liberals, while the older generation votes straight Republican every time. I can think of little that would be less in my interest than watching, as a 16 or 17 year old, my parents cast “my” vote for Bush instead of Gore, as they certainly would have done. By the way — they would be voting that way because they thought it was in my best interest; if parents (and childless adults) are already voting for what they believe to be best for children, there goes the original premise, that children’s interests aren’t be looked after already by parents who consider issues of interest to children when casting their OWN votes.

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