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Let Children Vote
Disenfranchising the young is inconsistent with a robust democracy.
Image: E.D.W.W. CC
"If I was able to vote I would do my research, and I would study on who I could vote for, and then I would vote for them," my 12-year-old daughter told me. She paused a second, and added, "I would put a negative vote for Trump if I could."
My daughter's approach to voting is meticulous compared to that of the general United States electorate. Fully one in 10 Americans are politically disengaged, with little if any interest in politics, while most who do vote don't know their basic American politics (one 2007 survey found that only 69 percent of the electorate knew who the sitting vice president was) or do their research. In the 2016 presidential race, one Donald Trump voter that elected to make his case at a focus group explained, "We know [Trump's] goal is to make America great again.... It's on his hat." Yet in the U.S., it's my daughter who's not allowed to vote, while the disinterested third of the electorate and Trump-hat admirers can go to the polls and pull the lever. American voters are notoriously disengaged and poorly informed, and it hardly seems fair that my daughter, who is neither, can't vote among them.
The 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, requires all states to allow 18-year-olds to vote in federal and state elections. (States may lower the voting age further if they wish, though no states have taken the initiative; only 19 offer concessions to 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election.)
Disempowerment Is Harmful
In some cases, children's restricted civic status keeps them safe—most people would agree that children under 16 should not be allowed to drive, for instance, and that children should be barred from the adult court system. But in other instances, treating children as if they are less than full citizens makes them more vulnerable to abuse. Teens who sext each other can face criminal charges and jail time for possessing or distributing child pornography even if the pictures are of themselves. Religious exemptions to child-abuse laws have been a recurring problem since the 1970s. Without a civic voice, children have few options for escape if they are in abusive family situations: LGBT youth kicked out of their homes, for example, have few ways of making a living other than selling sex.
In the 20th century, women and African Americans pushed for the vote to gain a voice in governance that wasn’t fully representing their interests. Some have argued children are distinct from these groups because they are incapable of understanding or even being interested in politics—University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds wrote in USA Today that the voting age should be raised since 18-year-olds aren't "able to participate in adult political discussions."
But that’s a familiar justification for lack of representation in this country: Women's suffrage opponents argued that women shouldn't have the vote because "90% do not want it or do not care." Frances Willard, a suffrage activist on behalf of white women, but not African Americans, once declared: "It is not fair that a plantation Negro who can neither read or write should be entrusted with the ballot." Claims to one group's ignorance and indifference are always used as excuses to avoid extending the ballot.
As with suffrage movements past, there are two broad, complementary, and philosophical arguments for why my daughter, and other children, should be allowed to vote. The first is that individual voting is not very important. The second is that it is.
Individual Voting Is Not Dangerous
As far as political participation in a democracy goes, individual voting has a relatively minor impact. Voting, Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who writes a column on U.S. politics for Bloomberg View, writes in an email, is "training-wheels democracy; a more successful democracy involves more participation." Today, children are encouraged, even expected, to be engaged, and already participate in more consequential acts than voting: Young people aren't barred from making calls on behalf of candidates, for example, or testifying before Congress. Offering evidence directly to the legislature is far more likely to have a measurable affect on public policy than casting a single vote.
If children were able to vote, they wouldn't vote in a block, transforming the electorate. Instead, they'd most likely vote like their parents. Though voting enjoys a reputation for being an iconic and individual political act, voters actually cast their ballots in groups, according to Bernstein. "People don't choose candidates by first studying the issues, then deciding their positions on issues, then checking to see which candidate matches up best against those policies," he writes. "Instead, they tend to vote with their primary political identification group—that is, whatever group they think of themselves as 'in' when they think about politics.” In the general election, he says, that winds up meaning that people vote with their party.
The research shows that personal and family history plays no small part in deciding who gets your vote: Who you cast your ballot for in your first election, or who your parents voted for, are much more likely to affect your decision than candidate statements or gaffes. Even Mitt Romney's famous 2012 video insulting half of the electorate had little effect on the election. Children's votes, then, probably wouldn't be so different than adults': If teens were allowed to vote, for instance, "I don't think they would be any different from older voters," Bernstein writes. It's likely that children's suffrage would have a trivial effect as far as most election outcomes go.
Individual Voting Is Core to Citizenship
But children's suffrage is not trivial practically and symbolically. Voting has traditionally been one of the most important signs of citizenship, even of humanity, in democracies. Women and black suffrage movements fought for the vote in order to gain political power, but also to be recognized as full citizens. "The major purpose of children gaining rights to vote would be for them to be taken more seriously in the political realm and thereby make concrete gains across the entire spectrum of society," John Wall, a professor of philosophy and religion at Rutgers University, writes in an email. If children had the vote, he writes, they would be treated as full citizens, “instead of the second-class citizens they currently are."
Historically, politicians have tended to pay groups far greater attention once they gained the vote. Take former militant segregationist Strom Thurmond, a senator from South Carolina who endorsed making Martin Luther King's birthday a holiday once the Voting Rights Act of 1965 held politicians accountable to black people; or Democrats in the 1960s, who reversed their traditional opposition to women's issues in order to try to attract women voters. Wall believe this effect could encourage politicians to implement crucial legislation for children too. Better educational funding, stronger protections against abuse, and perhaps greater free speech and assembly rights (currently restricted when compared to those for adults) might all result from children's suffrage. "Politicians (and adults in general) would benefit from hearing about children’s actual concerns, instead of relying on how adults might perceive them second-hand,” he writes.
So at what age should kids begin to have the franchise? Advocates and scholars make different recommendations. Bernstein suggests that young people should start having the right to vote at the ages of 14 or 12. Michael Cummings, a political science professor at the University of Colorado–Denver and the author of the forthcoming book Children's Voices in Politics, argues, on the other hand, that children should be allowed to vote as soon as they want to. "There are some very young people, politically precocious, who have strong ideas about public policy," he says. In his eyes, fourth- and fifth-graders are engaged with politics enough to have concerns about homelessness, the environment, and ways their schools can be improved. "Children, on average, are less competent to vote than adults," he says. "But there are millions of exceptions. There are millions of young people under the age of 18 who are politically savvier than millions of adults."
If a 12-year-old, or a nine-year-old, or a five-year-old has concerns about public policy, what grounds is there to deny that child a voice? "My position is that whenever in life a person has opinions about public policy and wants those opinions to count, they should," Cummings says. The U.S. is supposed to be governed by the people, for the people. My daughter, I'm convinced, is a person. She should be able to vote.
Now More Than Ever
I originally wrote this for the now defunct Pacific Standard in 2015. Since then, I think the importance of youth voting has only become greater. Republicans have launched an all out war against children, rolling back child labor protections, working to deny them healthcare, and blocking efforts to cut child poverty. Some in the GOP have also argued for raising the voting age.
The GOP assault on the young is tied, in no small part, to the fact that young people are increasingly likely to vote Democrat. In battleground states in 2022, young voters gave Democrats the edge which allowed them to win a victory in battleground states. 18-44 year olds voted 65-31 for Ds in Arizona, 58-44 for Ds in Georgia, 63-35 for Ds in PA.
Younger voters lean Democrat because they are more liberal—abortion rights has galvanized younger women voters. They also lean D because younger voters are less likely to be white than older generations.
Ds have started to try to appeal directly to younger voters. Democrats, though, have said little about lowering the voting age. Republicans are always looking for more ways to restrict votes; Democrats, in response, tend to just mutter about protecting existing voting rights, or returning to the status quo of a couple of decades ago.
I think that’s inadequate. Democrats should be aggressively pushing not just to maintain voting rights, but to expand them. That means enfranchising Washington DC. But it should also mean letting people who will be affected by current policies for decades vote on those policies. Give young people the vote.
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