Suffer the Little Children to Vote

On this election day, as on most others, we will hear a lot about the need to increase turnout and the dangers of voter suppression. But few will even consider questioning the systematic exclusion of a huge part of our population from the franchise: children under the age of 18. We allow even the most ignorant and irresponsible adults to vote, but exclude even the most knowledgeable and insightful children. And to add insult to injury, we saddle them with a mediocre education system and trillions of dollars in public debt that they will someday have to repay.

For reasons I outlined during the last presidential election, this is both unjust and counterproductive. We should at least consider allowing children to vote if they are more knowledgeable than the average adult voter:

The main objection to giving children the vote is that they lack the knowledge to make informed choices. Of course the same is true of most of the adult electorate, who are rationally ignorant about politics and public policy, and often don’t know even very basic facts. Nonetheless, it’s probably true that the average child knows a lot less about politics than the average adult, and that may be a good reason to deny most children the franchise. But why deny it to all of them? If a minor can pass a test of basic political knowledge (say, the political knowledge equivalent of the citizenship test administered to immigrants seeking naturalization), why shouldn’t he or she have the right to vote? Such a precocious child-voter would probably be more knowledgeable than the majority of the adult population. Giving her the right to vote would actually increase the average knowledge level of the electorate and thereby slightly improve the quality of political decision-making. I’ve met twelve-year-olds with far higher levels of political knowledge than that of the average adult. You probably have too.

Once the knowledge objection is off the table, all the arguments for giving adults the right to vote also apply to sufficiently knowledgeable children. Like… adults, children have a claim to the franchise because government policies affect them too, because otherwise their interests might be undervalued in the political process, because it affirms their status as citizens with equal rights, and so on.

Obviously, there might be some difficult administrative issues. For example, we might not trust the government to put together an adequate knowledge test. But I don’t see any principled reason to deny the franchise to children whose political knowledge is greater than that of most adult voters.

Other standard objections to letting knowledgeable children vote also don’t hold much water, and in some cases resemble long-discredited justifications for excluding women from the franchise:

Some people might worry that even knowledgeable child-voters will be “unduly” influenced by their parents’ preferences. Given the existence of the secret ballot, I doubt that this would be a major problem. Moreover, children who are knowledgeable enough to pass the test and interested enough to take it will probably have at least some political ideas of their own that aren’t easily susceptible to parental suasion. In any event, I’m not sure that the possibility of parental persuasion would necessarily be a bad thing. The objection is in fact similar to one of the arguments once raised against giving women the right to vote – that they would be unduly influenced by their husbands or fathers. Husbands will often influence the views of their wives (and vice versa); similarly, parents will influence those of their children. That doesn’t by itself justify denying either married people or children the right to vote….

[C]hildren might lack maturity or life experience, as well as knowledge…. I’m just not convinced that either is tremendously useful for voting. Most voting decisions have to do with complex, large-scale policy issues that can’t easily be weighed based on personal experience. Realistically, even most adults have little life experience that is directly useful in assessing difficult policy issues… At the very least, it seems to me that superior knowledge might well outweigh inferior maturity and life experience. And I’m only advocating giving the franchise to children who can demonstrate knowledge levels superior to those of the average adult voter…[Moreover, we don't exclude even the most immature adults from the franchise, even if they are highly ignorant to boot].

[Some cite] the value for voting of such “adult” experiences as holding a job, paying taxes, owning property, and so on…. I’m skeptical that these experiences greatly improve the quality of voting decisions. Even more to the point, however, we don’t exclude from the franchise the many adults who lack some or all of these experiences – even if they are also ignorant of even the most basic political knowledge. If lack of life experience is not enough to justify exclusion of even the most ignorant adults from the franchise, I don’t see why it should be considered sufficient to exclude vastly more knowledgeable minors.

The key conclusion is this: There is no plausible justification for excluding knowledgeable children from the franchise that doesn’t also apply to large numbers of adults. We could easily exclude adults who don’t have a job, don’t own property, or lack whatever other life experience supposedly makes you a qualified voter. But virtually everyone agrees that we shouldn’t.

One can argue that the exclusion of children is more permissible than that of comparable adults because it is “only” temporary. But every election leads to policy decisions that have permanent long-term effects. Knowledgeable children who were denied the vote in 2004, 2008, and this year, are going to be massively affected by the decisions made by the winners of these elections. And, of course, the exclusion of adults who don’t have jobs or other relevant life experience might also be temporary, lasting only until they manage to get that experience.

Argentina and the German state of Bremen recently extended the franchise to people over the age of 16, irrespective of their knowledge levels. We should consider doing the same for at least those children who know as much about politics as the average adult. I don’t underestimate the practical difficulties of implementing this idea. For example, it may be very hard to come up with an unbiased knowledge test for aspiring child voters. But the issue at least deserves serious consideration. We should not continue to exclude millions of knowledgeable potential voters from the franchise, unless there really is no good way to avoid it.

I am not the first to advocate giving at least some children the right to vote. Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson has been making that case for a long time (albeit on somewhat different grounds). And columnist Michael Kinsley defended a similar idea in 2011. But Kinsley and Peterson are arguing that parents should be allowed to cast an extra vote for each of their children (though Peterson would give parents the option of letting the children make their own choices). This is a little like giving husbands the right to cast an extra vote for their wives, instead of letting married women vote for themselves. I say let knowledgeable children cast their own ballots.

Finally, it’s worth noting the commonality this post and my last one, in which I urged adult voters to consider not voting on issues they know little or nothing about. Knowledge, not age, should be the main qualification for exercising political power at the ballot box. We may understandably shy away from giving government the power to use knowledge tests to narrow the franchise. But it’s much tougher to argue against using them to expand it.