Is it Unjust to Require Children to Pass a Knowledge Test to Vote, but Not Adults?

Canadian legal blogger Leonid Sirota has posted an interesting response to my post advocating extension of the franchise to politically knowledgeable children. He argues that it is unjust to require children to pass a knowledge test for voting, but not adults. He would therefore prefer to lower the voting age to 16 instead:

Pour ma part, je pense que l’option du vote à 16 ans est préférable à celle d’un test. Au-delà problèmes d’administrabilité évoqués par prof. Somin, ce sont arguments qu’il apporte lui-même qui semblent militer contre l’instauration de tests pour les mineurs. S’il n’y a pas de bonne raison de traiter les jeunes différemment des adultes, et les arguments de prof. Somin pour dire qu’il n’y en a pas sont très convaincants, alors il est sûrement injuste d’instaurer un test pour les premiers mais pas pour les seconds. Si les connaissances du système politique devraient être un critère pour pouvoir voter, il n’y a pas de raison pour ne pas appliquer ce critère aux adultes.

Sirota’s post is in French, which I understand, but most of our US readers probably don’t. I would translate the key passage roughly as follows: “If there is no good reason to treat the young differently from adults, and Prof. Somin’s arguments that there isn’t one are very convincing, it is surely unjust to institute a test for the former, but not the latter. If knowledge of the political system should be a prerequisite to getting the right to vote, there is no reason not to apply that criterion to adults.” If I have gotten the translation wrong, I hope Sirota or one of our French-speaking readers will correct me.

I am not convinced by Sirota’s objection. It’s true that my proposal doesn’t eliminate all unequal treatment of children and adults. Children would have to pass a test to be eligible to vote, whereas adults would not. But the same is true of both the status quo voting age of 18 and Sirota’s proposal to cut it to 16. In both cases, people younger than the voting age are categorically denied the franchise solely because they are minors. My proposal doesn’t completely eliminate the unequal treatment. But it does reduce it by at least giving children some opportunity to vote.

I would prefer to minimize government policies that discriminate on the basis of age. But there are some cases where age is so closely correlated with some important ability that it’s difficult to avoid. In this case, it’s undeniably true that children, on average, have much lower political knowledge than adults. And political ignorance is a serious problem that we don’t want to exacerbate by, say, allowing completely ignorant six year olds to vote. Giving the vote to knowledgeable children both diminishes the extent of age discrimination in voting policy and actually increases the average knowledge level of the electorate. It’s a win-win situation all round.

Why not, then, require adults to pass a knowledge test as well? As Sirota says later in his post, this is not a completely ridiculous idea. But it does have two serious flaws. First, as I discuss in an earlier post, there would be a serious danger of potential partisan bias in the design of the test. I’m not certain we can overcome them even with a test confined to children. But the danger is much greater if the test applies to all voters rather than just a small subset.

Second, there is a big difference between using a test to expand the franchise to a group that has always been barred from it, and using it to take away voting rights from millions of people who have them now. The latter is both politically infeasible and quite likely unjust as well. In general, I’m not a big fan of Burkean conservatism. But this is one of those areas where Burkean suspicion of drastic change is probably justified. Allowing knowledgeable children to vote isn’t subject to the same objection, since it is likely that it would alter the composition of the electorate only modestly. Probably only a small percentage of children would both want to take the test and be able pass it.

My proposal is far from perfect. It wouldn’t completely eliminate age discrimination in voting rights, and it certainly isn’t a complete solution to the problem of political ignorance. But it could well be a genuine improvement over the status quo on both fronts. I think that’s reason enough to at least give it serious consideration.

UPDATE: Sirota has put up a response to this post:

I think that what drives the disagreement between us is that we have different views on what justifies the denial of a legal right to vote (note that I am only talking about the legal situation―prof. Somin makes the case, in a separate post, that there is something like a moral duty to abstain from voting on issues or candidates about which one is ignorant, and I agree with him on that). In prof. Somin’s view the key factor is political knowledge, and lack thereof. I think that the real issue is not so much knowledge as maturity and capacity for judgment.

It is true that minors are generally less knowledgeable about politics (and other things) than adults. But they are also, on average, less mature and less capable of responsible judgment, and the law recognizes this diminished capacity by making them, depending on their age, less criminally liable, incapable of entering into (certain kinds of) contracts, etc. At least in criminal cases, it is quite clear that the reason for the distinction made between minors and adults is not knowledge of the relevant facts, but capacity for judgment. I think that it is the reason for the other distinctions too. Note, too, that the one category of adults to whom we uncontroversially deny the franchise are those too mentally ill, too lacking in judgment and decision-making ability to be responsible for their own decisions; such people have guardians, just like children do. They need not be ignorant―but their judgment faculty is severely impaired.

Now, in those areas where―I think―the law makes distinctions on the basis of age that are grounded in maturity and capacity for judgment, it usually does so by drawing bright lines.

Obviously, some degree of judgment is necessary for almost any decision. But in my view, there is a big difference between a situation where we are making choices in our own personal lives (e.g. – signing contracts, to use one of Sirota’s examples), and decisions where we are choosing rulers for an entire society. The former kind of decision usually requires only a modest amount of knowledge, and it is reasonable to assume that anyone with reasonably good judgment could acquire it. By contrast, good judgment of the sort that enables us to make effective personal decisions is not the most important factor in making voting decisions. There, we need knowledge of how policy affects people in very different circumstances from our own. The key ingredient here is not judgment of the kind that helps us make personal decisions, but knowledge of how large-scale political and economic systems work. Personal experience and judgment is only of limited relevance. A person can easily be an above-average quality voter while displaying poor judgment in their personal life, and vice versa. I make that case in more detail here. My guess is that any child who has more political knowledge than the average adult is also likely to have enough judgment to analyze that knowledge at least as well as the average adult eligible to vote (which may, of course, not be a very high level of competence in an absolute sense). On net, therefore, my proposal would still improve the overall quality of the electorate, even if perhaps only slightly.

Even with respect to criminal law and contracts, I think that knowledge plays a bigger role in the law than Sirota suggests. One big reason why we distinguish between minors and adults in these areas is that the latter are less likely to understand the true consequences of certain contracts, or of criminal acts. They may also be less likely to realize that a given act is wrong. That’s also a major factor in the differential legal treatment of the mentally insane. Indeed, the traditional legal definition of insanity actually defines it in terms of lack of knowledge: the defendant gets off if, as a result of his mental disease or defect, he (i) did not know that his act would be wrong; or (ii) could not understand the nature and quality of his actions.

It’s also worth noting that Sirota’s proposal of reducing the voting age to 16 without imposing tests of either knowledge or judgment would result in a reduction of the quality of the electorate on both dimensions (assuming, of course, that 16 to 18 year olds on average have worse judgment than adults). And, as I previously noted, it would continue to engage in more blatant age discrimination than my idea, since those under 16 would be forbidden to vote regardless of their level of knowledge or how good their judgment might be.

Finally, contra Sirota’s description of my view, I don’t necessarily regard it as a “mistake” that we have extended the franchise to include all or nearly all adults. As discussed above, I’m skeptical that we can trust government enough to come up with a knowledge test that would apply to the entire electorate. Creating a knowledge test that applies only to children poses fewer risks of abuse.