Should children have the right to vote?

by Harry on March 23, 2006

djw has a nice post up about whether children should have the right to vote (unfortunately it sems to load very slowly, but its worth reading). He is somewhat persuaded that they should, and outlines the argument of a paper by Michael Cummings arguing the case (my colleague Fran Schrag has another interesting paper making a different argument for a similar conclusion). I’m not sure I disagree with any of the arguments djw presents, all of which are responses to possible arguments against enfranchising children. So he calls for an argument that is not easily responded to, so, ever willing to oblige, here’s a possible reason, which, I think, makes a better version of the case that his comment #4 is a response to.

We know that young children are not competent, and that the responsibilities implied in the right to vote would be absurdly burdensome on them (for example, the responsibility to weigh the moral reasons and empirical evidence for and against particular policy alternatives). Granting young children the vote (say 5 year olds, 7 year olds, 9 years olds) would either be meaningless (because we don’t put any pressure on them to exercise it non-trivially) or burdensome because exercising the relevant responsibilities would require them to forgo numerous goods that they are entitled to as children (leisure time, some degree of carefree-ness, some level of ignorance about the bad things in the world etc).

Of course, we know that many older children do have the relevant competences, and some of those would gain from exercising them and the responsibilities associated with them, but we do not have a fine-grained way of distinguishing between the competent and the incompetent. So we set an age which we know will leave some competent children disenfranchised.

This is where the argument djw refers to in # 4 comes in. Having barred some competent people from the franchise for the sake of others we have to show that we are not expressing contempt for them; in other words that we are not treating them as Blacks and women have been treated when they have been disenfranchised. And, indeed, unlike disenfranchised women and blacks they have a relatively straightforward way of becoming enfranchised; growing up. Furthermore, like non-citizen immigrants, competent and interested children have the rights to participate in political decision-making in all the ways that do not involve voting (they can join political parties, participate in campaigns, write letters, support strikes, get beaten up by the police, etc) while they wait to be 18 or 21 or whatever the age is. So, no contempt is shown to the disenfranchised in this case.

The actual age of enfranchisement is left up for grabs by this argument; 11 is too young, but 25 is too old (though I realize that many people in their early 20’s think they should be free from burdensome responsibilities). 16 seems fine to me, as does 18. But there is a lower limit, and it is not far below 16 in my opinion.

Anyway, what I really wanted to do here was provide a lengthy quote from William – The Hero (it’s lifted from my paper, “How Should Children Be Heard?”). It was written toward the end of WWII, and the 10 year old William and his friends are discussing, and trying to formulate a child-oriented alternative to, the Beveridge Report:

“Well, first of all, they’re goin’ to have shorter hours” said William. So we’ll have ‘em too.”
“Longer holidays,” said Ginger.
“Much longer holidays,” said Henry.
“As much holidays as term,” said Douglas.
“More holidays than term,” said Ginger…..
“An’ no afternoon school,” suggested Ginger.
“Yes, no afternoon school, “ agreed William. “Afternoon school’s not nat’ral. Well, come to that, school’s not nat’ral at all…Axshally, I don’t see why schoolmasters shouldn’t teach each other. It’d give ‘em something to do an’ serve ‘em right. Still, we’ll be reasonable….”

The boys go on to interpret ‘Higher Wages’ as requiring ‘A shilling a week pocket money’, and ‘Better Conditions’ as requiring ‘No Latin or French or Arithmetic’. William points out that “They’re very partic’lar about Freedom from Want an’ Fear. We’ve gotter be partic’lar about that too.” They dissect the demand. The boys will be free from fear if they have ‘No punishments and stay up as late as we like’. And Douglas says:

“We need somethin’ more than a shilling a week to give us freedom from want. I bet I wouldn’t feel free from want – not really, not honestly free from want – without six ice creams a day”
“An’ bananas—when they can use the ships for bringin’ ’em again, ’stead of havin’ to carry guns an’ things all the time.”
“An’ cream buns.”
“Yes, an’ cream buns.”
“An’ bull’s eyes. Lots an’ lots of them. As many as we want.”

William books, by the way, are finally available mostly, but not always, in abridged form, the US.

{ 46 comments }

1

Chris Bertram 03.23.06 at 4:28 pm

Don’t forget our earlier thread on this very question:

http://crookedtimber.org/2003/08/28/give-children-the-right-to-vote/

2

harry b 03.23.06 at 4:30 pm

Bloody hell, you’re fast. yes, click on Chris’s link for the full CT experience.

3

sara 03.23.06 at 5:07 pm

Why not a lower age limit?

One can just imagine Republican politicians’ commercials for the two- to four-year-old age set.

Or is that redundant?

4

Iron Lungfish 03.23.06 at 5:30 pm

I really don’t know why this would be controversial to anyone. Children who aren’t competent to vote will simply vote the way their parents vote; if you give children the right to vote, you’re really just giving parents extra votes for every child they happen to have. As policy this is neither morally justifiable nor particularly smart.

We need to have some kind of cutoff point with these things and while the age codified as law is bound to be arbitrary, the principle behind it really isn’t. Similarly we can agree there’s such a thing as statutory rape, even though age of consent itself is more or less arbitrary from place to place.

5

Steve 03.23.06 at 5:31 pm

Millions of self-centered, illogical, narcissistic yet financially dependent, responsiblity-avoiding new citizens? Don’t we have enough Democrats already?

Steve

6

Richard Bellamy 03.23.06 at 5:38 pm

There is a complaint in my small town every time there is a school-bond election. These elections tend to get circa 10% voter turnout. A significant percentage of those voters are the high school seniors, who are encouraged by their teachers to vote for the school bond and do so, but will not have to actually pay for it, as they are all going off to college before the law takes effect.

With close votes, it is nearly a certainty that the “high school senior vote” swings the election most years.

It seems almost like a truism that if we lower the voting age, schools will all become better funded. 92% of the people who are most directly effected are disenfranchised. While we all imagine that kids will vote for the “more free candy” candidate, the most likely scenario is that they will vote their interests just like everyone else, and will vote to fund schools instead of Medicare.

7

soubzriquet 03.23.06 at 5:53 pm

sigh. Well Steve, I suppose if you can’t do quality, you’ll do quantity. Mindless partisan sniping does lend such an air of sophistication to poor benighted CT, doesn’t it?

8

etat 03.23.06 at 5:56 pm

The idea that adults are more competent to vote than children is repugnant – and is disproved by the outcome of elections everywhere.

Therefore the only justification for defining the franchise is, as intimated by Iron Lungfish, the age of majority: you can vote when you can pull your own weight. Thus the kid on a family farm who can drive a tractor and the kid in a large family who helps care for younger siblings are both behaving as responsible adults and are as competent to participate in electoral politics as the half-wits, bigots and zombies who routinely make a mockery of democratic principles.

9

soubzriquet 03.23.06 at 5:59 pm

richard: I don’t know the particulars in your area, and hesitate to trust the engagement of the average high school senior. That being said, I suppose an argument could be made that they are the ones most likely to have felt the effect of underfunding, so it probably a clear cut bias. Anyone complaining about it with 10% turnout has little sympathy from me (none at all, if they didn’t vote).

10

Steve 03.23.06 at 6:00 pm

Working from the principle ‘no taxation without representation’, I suggest that the franchise be extended to those below standard voting age who are employed and thus taxed.

Actually, I wonder what the effect would be of giving everyone the choice between

a) having no vote but no tax, or
b) being eligible to vote, but getting taxed

11

soubzriquet 03.23.06 at 6:05 pm

9: should read `probably isn’t a clear cut bias’.

12

Keith 03.23.06 at 6:26 pm

I agree with etat, I know several smart sixteen year old who make beter informed decisions then some thirty year olds.

of course, this raises the whole competancy test for voting issue which is undemocratic by design. Oh well.

13

dunno 03.23.06 at 6:32 pm

The franchise cannot (in America, at least) fall below the age of majority. There are all loads of things a seventeen-year-old can’t do in this country because the state has fixed a line at 18 (other than drinking, I can’t much figure any no-eighteen cutoffs). If the state can severely limit, for example, the right of a seventeen-year old to enter into contracts that bind only her, it cannot rightly entrust her with a piece of the decisionmaking process of the Republic. And, to be fair, if you want to give the Breakfast Club the vote, you’ll have stop treating them like minors.

14

Iron Lungfish 03.23.06 at 6:43 pm

of course, this raises the whole competancy test for voting issue which is undemocratic by design. Oh well.

Well, this is kind of the point. We can all think of sixteen-year-olds who are smart and relatively well-informed and could maturely and reasonably vote in an election. On the other hand, none of us, I’m willing to bet, know any four-year-olds of which we can say the same. So we either codify a rather arbitrary voting age, or we have the government determine who is competent to vote through a test or a board of review, which does monstrous violence to some very basic tenets of democracy. On balance I can live with some smart sixteen-year-olds having to wait a couple years.

15

soc anon 03.23.06 at 6:48 pm

Iron Fish: “Children who aren’t competent to vote will simply vote the way their parents vote; if you give children the right to vote, you’re really just giving parents extra votes for every child they happen to have. As policy this is neither morally justifiable nor particularly smart.”

Oddly enough, this is precisely the same logic of those who opposed women’s suffrage, only here the argument was that it would give married men, not parents, multiple votes. Of course, many of the same anti-suffrage commentators also claimed that women would vote solely with their hearts and therefore send the country into ruin. Nothing like a bit of contradictory logic to cover all bases…

16

Steve 03.23.06 at 6:53 pm

Soubzriquet-

You don’t disappoint me. I was obviously responding to post #3 (which, being above mine, was made before me-that’s how this internet thingy works). Selective outrage is what I expected, and selective outrage is what I got.

Heh.

Steve

17

Colin Danby 03.23.06 at 7:17 pm

Thanks for making the link between _William_ and the Beveridge Report. I’ll have to reread Billy Bunter now.

In any case, I think I will soon be too old to vote.

18

Iron Lungfish 03.23.06 at 7:27 pm

Oddly enough, this is precisely the same logic of those who opposed women’s suffrage, only here the argument was that it would give married men, not parents, multiple votes.

Yep, I can see how the logic would be “precisely the same.” On the one hand we have a grown woman with the ability to independently seek out and access information; on the other, an eight-year-old child with a not-yet-fully-developed brain who filters most of the worldly information he receives through his parents. Both are clearly capable of the same level of autonomy; it must simply be an amazing coincidence that all those Republican parents happen to have all those tiny Republican children.

19

lemuel pitkin 03.23.06 at 7:43 pm

This whole topic kind of mystifies me. The argument seems to be that (1) various groups have been unjustly denied the franchise, (2) some of the argumetns that were used then are used against granting children the franchise now, so (3) it must also be unjust to deny children the franchise. But as iron lungfish points out, it actually is the case that small children are not competent to vote. The fact such distinctions have been misused doesn’t change this.

A more interesting way to think about this is that in the past people employed by others were consdiered incompetent to vote (e.g. by Kant), because they lacked genuine independence and autonomy. We consider ourselves high-minded and progressive for no longer believing this. But it might be wiser to ask if democratic principles are really compatible with a society in which most people are in a state of dependency.

There’s an analogy with Marx’s much-maligned “On the Jewish Question” here…

20

Henry (not the famous one) 03.23.06 at 7:58 pm

This discussion isn’t as academic as you would think: when the City of Los Angeles held elections for neighborhood councils in our local empowerment zone or whatever, the department in charge of overseeing elections told us that since the bylaws we had submitted did not mention any minimum age for voting, then ANYONE could vote. Ten year olds. Four year olds. Two year olds. Two month olds. We screamed long and loud enough and finally got the franchise limited to 18.

21

Christopher M 03.23.06 at 8:00 pm

There are all loads of things a seventeen-year-old can’t do in this country because the state has fixed a line at 18 (other than drinking, I can’t much figure any no-eighteen cutoffs).

Here are some activities which have non-18 age limits: driving; seeing R-rated movies (not the state per se, but what’s the difference?); having consensual sex (in many states); dropping out of high school; working unlimited hours in most jobs; having an abortion without parental involvement (in some states).

22

Z 03.23.06 at 8:11 pm

16 seems fine to me, as does 18. But there is a lower limit, and it is not far below 16 in my opinion.

I’d say 17 feels fine to me. Of course, my fellow citizens don’t wait too long to learn how to oppose a government.

23

Brandon Berg 03.23.06 at 8:34 pm

Therefore the only justification for defining the franchise is, as intimated by Iron Lungfish, the age of majority: you can vote when you can pull your own weight.

I like that one. Can we apply that criterion to determine voting eligibility for adults, too?

24

Jonathan Edelstein 03.23.06 at 9:14 pm

Of course, we know that many older children do have the relevant competences, and some of those would gain from exercising them and the responsibilities associated with them, but we do not have a fine-grained way of distinguishing between the competent and the incompetent.

What about self-selection? The odds seem good that a 14-year-old who cares enough to register and vote would do so at least as responsibly as a 20-year-old who doesn’t.

25

neil 03.23.06 at 11:24 pm

Should Iron Lungfish’s argument be considered inappropriate just because it’s the same one that was put forth in defense of disenfranchising blacks and women in earlier eras?

26

sara 03.23.06 at 11:58 pm

On a more serious vote, if Republicans are more likely to have children, often multiple children, and are more likely to coerce their children into voting like their parents, giving the vote to teenagers amounts to a GOTV for the Republican Party. Democrats and liberals may not have enough children to make this a balanced proposition.

If the Republicans are so anxious about kids having unauthorized premarital sex, they’ll be terrified at the thought of their kids casting unauthorized votes for Democrats.

27

bob mcmanus 03.24.06 at 12:38 am

“Should Iron Lungfish’s argument be considered inappropriate”

Yes; it is also not empirically supported, unless there are no rebellious or independent 15-yr-olds.
If there are some, or many, it is unfair discrimination. I am radical:”There shall be no discrimination on the basis of age.” Scrutiny as reasonable and demonstrated. If competency is in question, prove it for individuals or classes {infants), and apply the same tests to adults.

I will go to my grave never having voted for a Republican entirely so I can go to my grave etc. We don’t ask why people vote the way they do, or by what adequate process they arrive at their decision. I don’t care if the 50-yr-old and 4-yr-old vote for the guy with red hair.

I can’t see this kind of question being anything but the usual privileged class rationalizing its privilege. The fact that it must be arbitrary shows it is illiberal prejudice.

28

washerdreyer 03.24.06 at 12:59 am

27 – I tried to ask this when you made the same claim over at LGM. If such a constitutional amendment were passed (you don’t refer to it as an amendment here, but you do elsewhere) government run pensions and healthcare would be as unconstitutional under your new amendment as a pension program or a health care program which only provided caucasians with services would be currently.

29

bob mcmanus 03.24.06 at 1:55 am

28: If you say so. I did allow discrimination, just appropriate scrutiny or compelling interest or whatever. A two-yr-old is not a 15-yr-old, and laws needn’t necessarily act as if they were. I suspect the courts might work out something on Medicare and SS.

Or not. There would be disruptions. But “people as property” corrupts us all as much as slavery and misogyny.

30

washerdreyer 03.24.06 at 2:03 am

But your amenedment would rule out compelling interests having to do with age. They’d have to justify those programs without reference to age, which I don’t see as workable. Also, if no law can discriminate by age, at what must age must a child be able to emancipate themselves for no cause at all?

Also, child labor laws would be unacceptable, right?

31

bob mcmanus 03.24.06 at 2:23 am

Good grief, I am simply expressing a principled reaction based on some observations, not a well considered agenda. Anyway, before someone asks about my N***** membership, I accept that it is radical fringe position without any serious potential consequences. It ain’t gonna happen.

I did do a little googling, and here are a couple papers. Somebody named Hillary Rodham is mentioned in them, whoever she is. :)

Children’s Rights

On Children’s Rights

32

washerdreyer 03.24.06 at 2:33 am

Perhaps I was taking you too literally, it’s just that “Currently there is unjustified discriminaion against people because of age, especially because of youth, we should fix that” is really different from what I read you as saying.

33

bob mcmanus 03.24.06 at 2:48 am

Well, I offer a radical and controversial solution because I assume the resistance will be overwhelming. Even on as simple and trivial and issue as enfranchisement, I have seen all minors compared to chimpanzees.

But it really is quite simple:I have known 14-yr-olds who handle a part-time job, a budget, savings and prudent purchasing. I have known 40-yr-olds who can’t imagine such discipline. I have difficulty understanding the justification for one having autonomy and the other being chattel. We generally do not treat individuals unequally because they are members of a class. As I said at LGM, I will grant that perhaps teenagers and people of Irish descent* are specially vulnerable to alcohol, but at what empirical level of statistics do we enact discriminatory laws?

Being of Irish descent myself, it was a hypothetical intended not to offend, tho as a prejudice with historical pertinence, etc.

34

Henry (not that Henry) 03.24.06 at 5:55 am

Ireland will be free when Ireland is sober.

35

reuben 03.24.06 at 7:34 am

self-centered, illogical, narcissistic yet financially dependent

You’re talking about farmers, right?

36

Harald Korneliussen 03.24.06 at 8:55 am

Jonathan Edelstein, I agree, I made that comment on the other place. I’m in favour of a 16-year limit on most duties and rights associated with maturity, but voting comes in a special category. It’s through voting we decide what all our other rights and duties are. So, it’s only sensible to give it to those who ask for it – at least if they are governed by the laws they vote for.

37

Jaybird 03.24.06 at 10:59 am

From what I understand, the states are allowed to let anyone of any age vote, they just aren’t allowed to deny the vote to people on the basis of age if the people are 18 or older.

Why not petition your state to allow 16 year olds to vote? If you can get Wyoming, or wherever, to do it, maybe other states will follow suit.

38

Thor Likes Pizza 03.24.06 at 2:05 pm

I don’t believe we should allow adults to vote.

We should operate our political system the way Klingons run their starships.

The ones at the top intimidate their opponents/underlings into humiliating and abject submission.

When the submissive humiliated underlings have had enough, they attempt a coup, usually, if successful, involving the death of the previously intimidating leadership.

If the coup fails, the pretenders to power are executed or similiarly put out to pasture.

Waitaminnit – this scenario seems vaguely familiar…

39

etat 03.24.06 at 2:58 pm

10. _Actually, I wonder what the effect would be of giving everyone the choice between

a) having no vote but no tax, or
b) being eligible to vote, but getting taxed_

I like this, partly because it raises an entertaining thought about what happens to people on welfare/income support. Do they retain a fractional vote? Does the state excercise a vote on their behalf? Would there be a means-test for voting?

40

Iguanodon 03.24.06 at 4:17 pm

but we do not have a fine-grained way of distinguishing between the competent and the incompetent.

Indeed, I can think of many people who are not competent enough to vote. Believers in faith healing, the power of fairies, the infallible accuracy and virtue of the free market, purchasers of Pussycat Dolls CDs, people who believe they should support the president because he is the president, and so on and on…

Oh, wait, you were talking about children? Sorry.

I suppose we could dispense with voting, and people could simply interact with one another on a voluntary basis, with groups setting their own criteria for admission without the need for some abstract “government” to do so.

Anarchism. It slices and dices.

41

zdenek 03.25.06 at 6:08 am

Harry– your argument is works very nicely for me but note that that type of argument is what underwrites the status quo position on the question of whether children should have the right to vote. The status quo position is sort of default position so how is it that the authors such as Cummins manage to shift the burden of proof to the status quo ? In other words it is people like Cummings that need to offer a sound argument and not just shift the burden of proof ( that is question begging ).You see quite clearly that this is going on in Cummings first premis : seriously question begging .

42

zdenek 03.25.06 at 8:08 am

Harry– assuming that djw characterises Cummings argument accuratelly it seems to me ( having taken another look ) that Cummings misrepresents the default position ( the status quo position if you like ) because he does not mention that the main reason we exclude children is precisely -as you point out – because they lack the relevant competence .
This is the core of the practice and any criticism of excluding kids should be aimed at that part of the case . Cummings simply fails to mention this point and so his criticism is aimed at a straw man.
An interesting question is whether Cummings could modify his argument to take the point about competence into consideration . One possible but implausible way to do this would be to try to show that voting does not require very high competence ( no policy assessment or moral reasoning required )and hence children can meet such a requirement.This would be difficult to defend though.

43

Steve Reuland 03.25.06 at 6:39 pm

I have yet to hear a good argument for eliminating the voting age that wouldn’t also support allowing children to star in porn films. If we consider matters of competence, maturity, etc. to be unfair criteria for granting voting rights, then nearly every age-specific law needs to go.

44

Christopher M 03.26.06 at 5:55 pm

It’s kind of bizarre that the debate here (and in many places) over children’s voting has focused on whether or not some subset of “children” exists that is “responsible,” “thoughtful,” etc., as if it were plausible that the superiority of representative democracy over other political arrangements is the result of the voters’ collective thoughtfulness and expertise.

Democracy (in my view, a frankly pragmatic one) is about interests. There’s a bunch of people in this country (and almost every country) and the best way not to screw too many people over too badly is to let everyone vote and thus force those who hold power to accommodate the wide range of interests that all those people have.

The argument for children’s votes (controlled either by the children themselves or by their parents) should focus on how children’s votes would affect the structure of the political scene. I’d start with the presumption that children should have votes because they are people and have interests that society should seek to accommodate. Then I’d entertain arguments about how (1) children’s voting wouldn’t actually serve those interests, or (2) some other, negative structural effects would outweigh the gain to equality.

45

Christopher M 03.26.06 at 6:01 pm

I have yet to hear a good argument for eliminating the voting age that wouldn’t also support allowing children to star in porn films.

Exactly, because the arguments here have mostly been framed in terms of individual autonomy justified by individual capability (responsibility, intelligence). And choosing to star in a porn film is an exercise of autonomy, so your reductio works.

But if the argument for children’s voting is (as it should be) an argument about how the structure of political institutions (like voting) affects the justice of political outcomes, then porn films are pretty clearly a red herring.

46

zdenek 03.27.06 at 2:52 am

Christopher m– Society does respect that children are people with interests but it also recognizes that that is only a necessary condition of having a right to vote. The other necessary condition is that one has a grasp of what these interests are and that such interests are articulated . And of course small children simply do not meet this condition ; dont know what their interests are ( how could they vote to promote their interests if they dont have articulated set of interests to beggin with ? ). Its broadly recognised that growing up process involves developing ones moral personality which is closely tied to ones conception of good and there is empirical evidence that small children are only starting on this path ( Kohlberg, Piaget ). Not taking this fact into consideration is not doing children any favours ( never mind the muddle involved )
This is the status quo and is more sensible than the proposal which doesnt take into consideration that children are not adults. Also note that status quo cannot be shifted with litle bit of rhetoric and hand waving and without good arguments ( simply question begging ).

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