Education and Voting Rights for Knowledgeable Children

In response to my post arguing that we should grant voting rights to politically knowledgeable children, Paul Horwitz of Prawfsblawg makes the following suggestion:

What spurred this post is Ilya Somin’s argument on the VC yesterday that knowledgeable children ought to be allowed to vote. He addresses some standard objections in his post, but a number of his commenters wrote to argue that such a rule, if enforced by knowledge or literacy tests, would end up privileging some groups and disadvantaging others (as, indeed, previous tests have done in the United States). Indeed, given massive educational inequality in this country, it’s hard not to see how this proposal wouldn’t give much more electoral power to the wealthy, well-educated, mostly white elite. Unless….perhaps Ilya would welcome a trade-off: knowledgeable children get the vote, in exchange for guarantees of massive public/private efforts to assure meaningful educational and welfare rights to ensure that the opportunity to be a knowledgeable child voter is fairly and widely distributed among the entire population rather than limiting that vote to enclaves with better resources. I’m just going to go ahead and consider this Ilya’s very subtle case for overruling San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez [the 1973 decision that ruled that there is no constitutional right to equal education spending].

Paul is, of course, entitled to interpret my argument however he wants. But I have no desire to overrule Rodriguez. Setting aside the legal merits of the case, extensive evidence compiled by economists Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth shows that increasing education spending in public schools does little or nothing to increase educational achievement. On the other hand, I would be happy if my child-voting proposal were paired with increased school choice, which does have a demonstrated record of increasing educational achievement among poor minority children.

That said, I think the child-voting proposal could potentially be implemented even in the absence of increasing school choice. Most studies of racial attitudes suggest that racism is correlated with age (the young are much less likely to be racist than their elders) and inversely correlated with knowledge and education (the knowledgeable and educated are less likely to be racist). Therefore, even if knowledgeable children are disproportionately likely to be white and/or wealthy, the resulting electorate is not likely to be more hostile to minorities than the one we have now, and may well be less so. Much evidence also suggests that there is little correlation between political attitudes and narrow self-interest (after controlling for other variables that affect political opinion). So it’s unlikely that knowledgeable children (or knowledgeable adults) would seek to promote policies that benefit the rich or some narrow interest group at the expense of the general public or the poor. Indeed, at this point in history, the young, including the well-educated young, are disproportionately liberal Democrats.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the unequal historical impact of literacy and knowledge tests was in considerable part the result of biased application. Unbiased test administration would have a much less skewed effect. And, obviously, racial or ethnic bias in test administration would today (unlike in the Jim Crow era) be grounds for lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

That said, as I noted in my original post, I do take seriously the danger that incumbent political leaders would try to skew the test to favor their political supporters and disfavor opponents. I don’t at this point have anything approaching a complete solution to this problem. But I’m not convinced it’s completely intractable either. One possible approach would be to leave the design of the test to a politically balanced, nonpartisan commission. Some election scholars believe that this approach has helped solve the comparable problem of gerrymandering of political districts in favor of the incumbent party in places like Nebraska. But I admit that for my proposal to actually work in practice, this issue would have to studied much more carefully.

UPDATE: I should note that I’m aware that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of tests for voting in much of the country because they had been used to exclude African-Americans. It’s likely that the Act would have to be modified to permit knowledge tests for minors in order for my proposal to be allowed in states covered by that section of the Act. I think there are obvious and important differences between using knowledge tests to exclude adults, and using them to include children who otherwise would be categorically barred from voting in any case. In any event, allowing states to use knowledge tests for children is still compatible with also giving both individuals and the federal government to sue states that attempt to use the test for purposes of racial or ethnic discrimination, whether by designing it in a biased way, or through unequal enforcement.